Fraternité to fallout: Macron’s hostility towards Biden as AUKUS security pact is announced

  • The trilateral deal between Australia, the UK, and the US focuses on development of nuclear-powered submarines, leaving France out of a previous €56 billion submarine deal
  • Taken by surprise, Macron has made his outrage clear by recalling French ambassadors to the US—for the first time ever—and Australia.
  • Biden has reassured France of its valued role as an ally, committed to open consultations, and agreed to a meeting in Europe.
Biden & Macron - USA & France
US President Biden and French President Macron / Getty Images

Why is Macron hostile towards Biden?

Answer: AUKUS represents a betrayal for France, which previously held a submarine deal with Australia and has been excluded from the new pact, despite France’s strategic role in the South-Pacific.

On September 15, the leaders of Australia, the UK, and the US introduced the world to AUKUS: a new trilateral security pact between the Anglosphere nations. The deal, formed to support Australia in acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine fleet, may be instrumental in how the security landscape of the Indo-Pacific develops. It raises questions about nuclear non-proliferation, the shifting Western approach towards China, and the possible collision with other key groups in the region, such as ASEAN or the Quad.

However, the biggest controversy around AUKUS lies far from those issues. Within hours of the pact’s announcement, French President Macron made his opinion clear, and it was nothing short of fury. On September 17, France recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia. As of a week later, amid the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly, and despite direct dialogue between Macron and Biden, tensions are still palpable.

The most straightforward reason for Macron’s hostility towards the three AUKUS leaders is that, since 2016 and until this month, it was France that held a multibillion submarine deal with Australia. The plan had been to provide the Royal Australian Navy with 12 conventional, diesel-powered submarines; its sudden cancellation will cost the French defense sector €56 billion, significant technological transfers, and years of planning. But, besides the economic blow, causes for hostility run far deeper, and single out Biden as the main receiver of Macron’s ire.

Yes, it was Australian Prime Minister Morrison who jumped ship, and is responsible for what the French Foreign Minister has described as “a stab in the back.” However, many of the harshest remarks from the French government have been directed towards the US President. In Minister Le Drian’s words, “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France” is “unilateral, brutal, unpredictable” and comparable to Trump’s style of foreign policy. 

For one, it is the element of surprise that has turned what could have been disappointment into blatant embarrassment for France. As with any security pact of this stature, the announcement of AUKUS comes after months of highly-secretive talks between the involved leaders; not only was Macron excluded from the discussion, but he was also as oblivious to its existence as the next person. As put by Ambassador Philippe Etienne, who is now to return to his posting in the US after being recalled to Paris, “[they] absolutely weren’t informed of the new course.”

Besides these immediate reasons for Macron’s hostility towards Biden, the bigger picture of geopolitical interests also explains a reaction of such magnitude. Exclusion from a serious conversation between Allies, exclusion from the AUKUS club; both of these come second to France’s exclusion from strategic defense power in the Indo-Pacific, a region that is becoming increasingly significant as a likely future playground for multipolar Great Power competition.

What does Macron want?

Answer: a relationship with its allies that is based on trust, loyalty, and respect, as well as inclusion in new security arrangements where France holds strategic interest. 

As a leader, Macron’s main preoccupation is securing France’s national interest. Economically, the country has missed out on what could have been a great stimulant to its defense sector, with the effects of Australia’s backout rippling through “a whole network of small and medium enterprises.” Strategically, the exclusionary creation of AUKUS represents a hurdle for French security positioning in the Indo-Pacific region, which happens to be home to “nearly two million of its nationals and more than 7,000 military personnel”, as emphasized by a statement released by the French Embassy to the US. It is certainly unusual for long-time allies to pose such obstacles to each other.

This question of deteriorating alliances is clearly of concern to Macron. Here, the issue takes on a more personal dimension, particularly when considering the good rapport that had been established between the French leader and the new US President. Since his election, Biden had made a point to flatter European partners and mend relationships under the foreign policy slogan of “America is back.”

At the G7 Cornwall Summit in June, Macron and Biden were seen exchanging smiles and warm embraces. All signs pointed to a strong camaraderie, and hopes for a new era of transatlantic cooperation ran high. There is no doubt that this context exacerbated Macron’s disappointment. On an individual level, his reaction expresses a want for more trust, loyalty, and respect.

The EU has spoken out in agreement with Macron. Ursula von der Leyen’s unusually-blunt remarks labels the treatment of France as “not acceptable”, and reflects coherence between the French reaction and broader European opinion: “friends and allies, partners, talk to each other (…) this did clearly not happen.” EU Commissioner Thierry Breton underscored this sentiment: “there is, indeed, a growing feeling in Europe—and I say this with regret—that something is broken in our transatlantic relations.”

This event has made it clear that Macron and other European leaders want and expect more coordinated policymaking from Biden and a more balanced partnership between the EU and the US. An acceleration of European defence integration would not come as a surprising retaliation; after all, security has always been the weak link in von der Leyen’s plan for EU strategic autonomy. With their trust now shattered, compromising on this front for the sake of good relations with the US and NATO may no longer seem worthwhile.

What does Biden want?

Answer: a comfortable middle ground between assertive pursuit of his foreign policy goals and multilateral cooperation.

On his part, Biden’s ultimate goal seems to be fulfilling all of his ambitious foreign policy objectives, which largely revolve around the containment of China’s rise. Whether his means to this end include the necessary tact or diplomacy work, is a different question. In fact, the announcement of AUKUS is not the first time a major security decision has been taken in Washington, D.C. while keeping the rest of NATO in the dark.

The same pattern was observed in the miscalculated withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving European leaders baffled at the complete lack of consultation from Biden. These actions are incoherent with the current administration’s commitment to doing things differently from the previous one, which was characterized by rash policymaking and a rejection of multilateralism. For this reason, the French Foreign Minister’s comparison of Biden to Trump comes as the utmost personal insult to the American leader.

Biden does want multilateralism. He made this clear in the first 100 days of his Presidency, through numerous diplomatic gestures, meetings, visits, and great promises. More so, Biden needs multilateralism. Recovering and strengthening a network of allies with common interests is crucial to his effort against China. AUKUS is evidence of this cooperative approach, despite sending the opposite message to France and the EU. In fact, the security deal offers a key revelation: the US will engage in multilateralism, but only where its interests lie.

With China as the bull’s eye for Biden’s foreign policy, a sharp pivot towards Asia and the Pacific is not exactly unexpected. As a consequence, Europe might be more of an afterthought to the US President than its leaders, including Macron, expected. This begs the question of whether Biden’s affirmations of commitment to strengthening NATO have come from a place of sincerity. Talk is cheap, but reforming a weak European security apparatus is not; all the more, it is simply out of the way. 

What is Biden doing?

Answer: the next best thing to apologizing.

Regardless of where transatlantic relations truly stand within Biden’s list of priorities, a fallout with France—longtime ally of the US, permanent member of the UNSC, and leading voice of the EU—is not a good look for anyone. Therefore, damage control and diplomacy have been inevitable for the US President and affiliates in the aftermath of AUKUS announcements.

From the beginning, Secretary of State Antony Blinken weathered Macron’s hostility. A day after the deal’s news broke out, he emphasized the role of France as a “vital partner” and ensured “no regional divide”; a week later, in his address to the UN General Assembly, Blinken abandoned the superficial positivity for a more honest discourse, acknowledging the “time and hard work (…) not only in words, but in deeds” that it would take to repair strained relations with France.

Last week, the much-awaited phone call between Macron and Biden took place. In what some have dubbed “a masterpiece of diplomatic elusiveness that saves face on each side”, the two leaders engaged in wordplay until they reached some common ground, later published in the form of a joint statement. When looking closely, one might find hints of an indirect apology on the part of the White House—something that is rare in itself and would have been unthinkable in the previous administration.

In recognizing that “the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies”, reaffirming “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region”, and expressing “his ongoing commitment in that regard”, Biden is doing the next best thing to apologizing: that is, appeasing Macron and trying his best to make it up to him.

Whether this will be enough is a different question; the French defense sector is clearly not going to repair itself, and neither is the strained strategic partnership between the two leaders. For this to happen, Biden will have to live up to his generous words by actually including Macron in future defense contracts, and demonstrate greater willingness to cooperate with Europe, be it through NATO, the EU, or both.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Macron has won the diplomatic tug-of-war, but Biden’s strategy emerges unscathed. 

If winning can be determined through a balance sheet of concessions, as presented in the aforementioned statement, Macron is certainly winning this battle. The Biden administration has bent its knee through continued statements of reassurance; the leader’s initiative in requesting a phone call with Macron; the agreement to meet in Europe, rather than the US, next month; the commitment to more open and in-depth consultations. All Paris had to do was send Ambassador Etienne back

However, it cannot go unsaid that Biden still got what he wanted: another way to exercise presence and power in an important region for his strategy on China. If AUKUS has made one thing clear, it is that Biden is not afraid to be selfish or assertive in securing US national interest; only time will tell whether EU-US relations will suffer in the long run, and whether NATO really is brain-dead, as per Macron’s warning.