PARIS — Make no mistake. This is a crisis, not a spat.
The new partnership announced last week between the United States, Britain and Australia, in which Australia would be endowed with nuclear-powered submarines, has left the French angry and in shock. And not just because of the loss of their own deal, signed in 2016, to provide Australia with submarines.
French officials say they have been stonewalled and duped by close allies, who negotiated behind their backs. The sense of betrayal is so acute that President Emmanuel Macron has uncharacteristically opted to keep silent on the issue, delegating the expression of a very public rage to his otherwise quiet foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian. Asked on public television whether President Biden’s behavior was reminiscent of his predecessor, Mr. Le Drian replied, “Without the tweets.”
The fallout is about much more than a scrapped business deal, Gallic pride and bruised egos. This diplomatic bombshell has crudely exposed the unwritten rules of great power competition, in which France cannot be a player unless it carries the weight of the European Union behind it. The past week has been about 21st-century geopolitics and the brutal adjustment of old alliances to new realities.
France considers itself a “resident power” in the Indo-Pacific region, a crucial battleground for the rivalry between America and China, because it possesses several islands and maintains four naval bases there. It developed its own strategy for the region in 2018 and has been pushing since then for the European Union to come up with a similar project. Ironically, the European Union’s Indo-Pacific strategy was presented on the very day the deal, known as AUKUS, became public. The plan was, of course, drowned out by the uproar.
Australia was key to the French strategy. Beyond the sale of submarines, Paris foresaw a partnership with Canberra that would add an important pillar to its presence in the region. Now the whole plan is in shambles. In the French view, the new program set up by the Americans in Australia is so enormous, encompassing cybersecurity and intelligence, that it doesn’t leave room for any other initiative. To rebuild its regional strategy, France is now turning to India, with which it already cooperates closely.
At work here is a realignment of alliances in the region, rammed through by the United States with as much consideration for its allies as it showed in the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. The world order is mutating, alliances multiplying. The Anglosphere, tightened around the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network, comprising America, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, is regrouping in the South Pacific. That leaves no space for continental Europeans, even though they have common interests.
It feels like a long time since Mr. Biden’s warm family reunion with his European allies at NATO headquarters in Brussels in June. Then, at Mr. Biden’s urging, leaders were united in declaring China a security risk, even though France and Germany objected that China was not part of the organization’s remit. Now, in the interests of countering that challenge, France has been cast aside.
The French don’t suspect the Biden administration of deliberately maneuvering to divide Europe — former President Donald Trump’s old trick — but they fault the new administration for misjudging the impact of its heavy-handed policy. American leadership, a French diplomat told me, is different from partnership. In Five Eyes, for example, there is one leader — the others are junior partners.
This raises many difficult questions for Europe. On Monday, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told CNN that the way France had been treated was “not acceptable.” But the reluctance of some European leaders to react publicly to the crisis reflects their uncertainty about how to deal with Washington and Beijing. As tensions between the two powers continue to rise, European leaders may not have the luxury of ambivalence for very long.
The United States also has questions to answer. Does partnering with post-Brexit Britain in this delicate phase of its relationship with the European Union and humiliating the French contribute to the stability of Europe and the unity of the West? If Washington really wants its European allies to take charge of their neighborhood, is it ready to accept the concept of European sovereignty, including in defense procurement? And what does it want for the future of NATO?
Sensing growing doubts among some of their E.U. partners about America’s commitment, the French will now try to push for a more autonomous and more sovereign Europe, with increased capacities to act both militarily and diplomatically. But the illusion that the French could be America’s partner in a more balanced relationship under a Biden administration — allied, but not aligned — is probably lost.
The Anglosphere has a colorful expression for this illusion: punching above one’s weight. Tellingly, it does not translate easily into French.
Sylvie Kauffmann (@SylvieKauffmann) is the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde.