France and the United States Seek an Elusive Reconciliation
Since their relationship imploded in a welter of recrimination six weeks ago, poisoned by what France saw as a betrayal by the United States over a sabotaged submarine deal, the two countries have worked hard to overcome the dispute. France has demanded “concrete” results.
Some of those results may finally be forthcoming when President Emmanuel Macron of France and President Biden meet on Friday in Rome on the margins of the G20 summit.
American and French officials said the United States was prepared to bolster France’s counterterrorism efforts in Africa, including possibly sending additional reconnaissance planes and drones to the $110 million airfield that the United States has built in the desert scrub near Agadez, Niger.
The Biden administration will also try to address one of President Macron’s overriding concerns by giving guarded backing to a European military force that is separate from NATO, the officials said.
Mr. Biden is expected to say that such a force could be a separate but complementary pillar to NATO, a statement that French officials hope will ease the concerns of some NATO members that a common European Union military force might dilute NATO.
It would also be viewed in Paris as a sign of American respect for independent European strategic ambitions after the perceived insult of the secretly negotiated submarine deal that sunk a French contract to sell conventional submarines. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, accused the United States of contempt and a “unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision.”
Officials said that they hope the American moves will put to rest the fight between the United States and France over the submarine deal with Australia, which withdrew from a contract with France to supply conventional submarines in favor of a deal worked out secretly with the United States and Britain.
“The United States is still our major ally,” said Gen. Thierry Burkhard, the French military’s chief of staff, in an interview with The New York Times. “But what we need is a very clear sign that trust can still be there.”
After a telephone conversation between Mr. Biden and Mr. Macron last Friday, France issued a statement saying they had agreed on the creation of a “stronger European defense” capacity that would be “complementary to NATO.” It appears that this would be fleshed out in a statement after the presidents meet.
The French president is convinced that America’s overwhelming focus on China — as well as what he sees as American unreliability during the Trump administration and in the recent “sub snub” — obliges Europe to forge an independent path.
At the core of his vision lies what he calls “European strategic autonomy.” This, he argues, should lead the European Union to something like a middle course between two great powers of the 21st century, the United States and China, bound to America through values and long friendship, but engaging rather than confronting China.
“The key question for the E.U. is to become an independent power,” Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister who is close to Mr. Macron, said in an interview this month. “Independent from the United States, able to defend its own interests, whether the economic interest or the strategic interests, which means to be able to build more capacities on defense.”
The problem for France is that not every European nation agrees. Countries including Poland, Hungary, Denmark and to some degree Germany are deeply attached to the trans-Atlantic bond and wary of any strategic move that appears to weaken it. The European Union is also a long way from having anything resembling a united military.
During a meeting in Athens last month, General Burkhard said he told his American counterpart, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that “it was in the interest of everyone to push for the idea of collective European defense.” He said that French officials believe that support from the United States is crucial to getting other European countries on board.
The likely American gestures toward France follow a flurry of meetings — including visits this month to Paris by both Antony J. Blinken, the secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser — that appear to have gone some way toward soothing French pique without reconciling divergent strategic views, particularly on China. Vice President Kamala Harris will come to Paris next month.
France had been looking for three concrete American steps: help with the French counterterrorism fight in the area south of the Sahara known as the Sahel, support for European defense ambitions, and some gesture toward French strategic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific area of which the now aborted submarine deal was a core element.
It is not clear if any agreement has been reached on how France and the United States can work together in Asia as China rises and poses a growing expansionist challenge.
For France, whose fight against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in Africa has become known as its “forever war,” any additional support from the United States would be an important conciliatory gesture.
A senior Defense official said on Thursday that the United States had committed “additional assets” in the Sahel to support the efforts. A second official said that administration officials were still working on the package, which could also include support for capacity building efforts, including the training of African forces on the ground. It was unclear whether that training would include additional U.S. troops to West Africa.
Last month, French military forces killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and the man who oversaw the group that claimed responsibility for an attack in 2017 that killed four American soldiers on patrol with Nigerien forces.
In August 2020, Mr. Al-Sahraoui also personally ordered the killing of six French charity workers and their Nigerien driver, French officials said.
The additional American counterterrorism help for French troops in Africa could also serve the purpose of allowing Mr. Biden to limit the number of American troops deployed on the continent, one administration official said on Wednesday.
French officials embrace this argument. They argue that the big strategic challenges in Africa demand a credible European army on a continent where the United States is unlikely to want to make big military commitments. Large immigrant flows from Africa pose severe political problems for European leaders, evident in the rise of rightist politicians with nationalist agendas.
“If the U.S. does not want China or Russia or Turkey taking the lead in Africa, they need to have a stronger Europe taking the lead in Africa,” Mr. Le Maire said. “That, I think, is the clearest illustration of what I’m explaining. This is in the interest of the United States to have the E.U. playing its role on the international stage.”
To some degree, further easing of the crisis in relations between France and the United States will depend on the personal chemistry between Mr. Macron and Mr. Biden. Mr. Biden has not visited Paris. Mr. Macron has not been invited to the White House. They met in Britain at the G-7 meeting in June, but the confidence that would forge a bond was shaken last month.
French officials have made no secret of Mr. Macron’s anger, reflected in his foreign minister’s repeated statements. When former President Donald Trump insulted the French president by brushing dandruff off his jacket at a White House meeting in 2018, the slight was never forgotten.
With Mr. Macron facing an election in April, and nationalist anti-immigrant candidates commanding at least a third of the vote, according to polls, French officials argue that a strong show of American solidarity with France is important to the European stability the United States seeks.
Asked if strategic differences on China meant a long-term parting of the ways between the United States and France, Mr. Le Maire said: “It could be the case if we are not cautious.” He added, “But it should not be the case, and we should do all our efforts to avoid going to that kind of situation.”