The Secret Talks Behind the U.S. Deal That France Called a ‘Betrayal’

According to French officials, Mr. Blinken also stayed silent on June 25 when his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, welcomed him back to Paris — where Mr. Blinken spent his high school years — and extolled the importance of the French submarine deal.

And as recently as Aug. 30, when the French and Australian defense and foreign ministers held their annual “consultation,” they issued a joint communiqué that said the two countries were committed to deepening cooperation in the defense industry and “underlined the importance of the Future Submarine program.”

By that time, the Australians not only knew the program was dead, they had nearly sealed the agreement in principle with Washington and London.

The French ambassador to the United States, Philippe Étienne, said in several interviews that he first heard of the deal in leaked news reports appearing in the Australian media and in Politico. Other French officials said they had been suspicious that something was up a week ago, but did not get an immediate response from Mr. Blinken or Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. The first American official to discuss the details with Ambassador Étienne was Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, a few hours before the public announcement on Wednesday.

American officials insist it was not their place to talk to the French about their business deal with Australia. But now, in light of the blowup, some officials say they regret they did not insist that the Australians level with the French about their intentions earlier.

The Chinese government also did not get a heads-up, no surprise since the official American position is that the submarine deal is not aimed at any particular nation. But China’s first response to the new alliance, awkwardly named AUKUS (for Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States), was that it was “extremely irresponsible” and would start an arms race. In fact, the Pentagon’s most recent China report says the Chinese Navy has built a dozen nuclear subs, some of which can carry nuclear weapons. Australia has vowed never to deploy nuclear weapons.

Even before Mr. Macron recalled the ambassadors, Mr. Biden’s aides seemed taken aback by the ferocity of the French response, especially Mr. Le Drian’s characterization that it was a “knife in the back.” They have suggested the French were being overly dramatic and believe the two countries will gradually return to normal relations. History suggests they may be right: A huge breach prompted by the British and French invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956 was eventually papered over, as was the “Nixon Shock” with the Japanese in 1971, when the United States gave no notice about its decision to come off the gold standard.


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