international analysis and commentary

Paris and Washington: Have we been here before?


Since the US announcement that it was entering a security agreement with Australia, where Canberra gave up its 2016 contract for French submarines in favor of American vessels, parties from all sides have been busy pointing fingers at who they believe is in the wrong.

France’s Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian proceeded to accuse Washington of “duplicity, contempt, and majorly breaching trust,” in what he described as an unprecedented move of recalling the American and Australian ambassadors. However, within the extensive blameworthy debate, there has been a substantial lack of nuance and pragmatism. The long-standing relations that exist between the two countries since 1778 have been characterized by many lows -whose damage has never been permanent- but more importantly by numerous highs.

A photo taken on May 2, 2018 shows French President Emmanuel Macron (2/L) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (C) standing on the deck of HMAS Waller, a Collins-class submarine operated by the Royal Australian Navy, at Garden Island in Sydney


Keep your allies close, but not too close

Examining the evolution of Franco-American ties highlights a tumultuous yet harmonious history. Over the last 60 years, both nations have shared a great deal of instances in which they categorically refused to support each other, followed by periods in which they were very much in favor of cooperating. This is simply a reflection of traditional foreign policy changing across time.

In the 1960s, during Charles De Gaulle’s presidency, he was strongly against France being a member of NATO as he believed that the US enjoyed far too much power within it and shared a privileged, unfair relationship with the United Kingdom. This prompted his decision to withdraw Paris from NATO command and it would not be until 2009 that the French would fully rejoin the organization, 48 years later. Years after France’s departure, another event took place that deeply hurt the relations between the two countries: Jacques Chirac’s systematic refusal to join the US-led coalition in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Although Chirac, the French president at the time, was not wrong in his reasoning to assume that such a move would deeply destabilize the region, it still represented an instance where France did not support its ally and chose to protect its national interests instead.

In contrast, the 2011 Libyan crisis and the 2014 counter-terrorism campaign led by the US against the Islamic State both represent some, if not the most, noteworthy instances of successful and integrated French-American cooperation. During the former, the two showed the strength of their partnership by closely coordinating the operations that brought to an end a 42-year dictatorship. France carried out the majority of the military strikes, which showed Washington its commitment and reliability to deploy appropriate means while the US provided essential political and logistical support (intelligence, etc.) throughout.

In looking back on the Libyan crisis, it should serve as a reminder to officials from both countries that they are stronger working together – alongside other allies – in terms of training and operational capabilities. When it came to the 2014 American-led intervention in Iraq (and later on Syria), the situation regarding the French involvement could not have been any more different than eleven years prior. France was amongst the very first allies to join the campaign during which President François Hollande declared that the country’s fight against terrorism would be “pursued, expanded as much as is necessary,” highlighting an important desire to undertake foreign military missions alongside Washington.

Less than three months ago, the US and France signed a new cooperation agreement for their joint counter-terrorism special forces operations in order to find new avenues to work together against the spread of terrorism following the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. Speaking about the agreement and the relationship that binds the two powers, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said that, “in the face of terrorism, both special forces have developed a true brotherhood of arms… [and] this convention deepens the exceptional ties they have forged.”

It should also be noted that in the past France has already done what Le Drian calls an “unprecedented move” in recalling back its ambassadors. In 2019, it recalled its Italian ambassador after the country’s foreign minister made some unwelcomed remarks regarding France, the latter stated that the situation was unparalleled since World War II. However, their fallout eventually faded. In 2020, the French also asked their Turkish representative to come back after Recep Tayyip Erdogan questioned Emmanuel Macron’s mental stability, only to send him back days later.

The important takeaways from these historical instances are twofold. On the one hand, it shows that for allies who have shared such an extensive level of proximity for well over two centuries, political damage may have negatively altered their relations but has never permanently burnt bridges between them. Arguably, one of the lowest moments, not only for France but for the overall European Union regarding their ties with the US, was during the Donald Trump presidency during which he retreated from the Paris climate deal, encouraged member states to leave, celebrated Brexit- all things from which their ties eventually mended from to some extent.

On the other hand, an additional important thing to remember is that understandably both countries continue to put their national interests first and foremost. However, American and French interests intersect whether that be their shared concerns about containing non-state extremist insurgents in Africa, the crucial support of American forces to France’s operations in the Sahel, climate change or trade. The US will need to work with both France and the EU (and vice-versa) in order to reconcile their policies on these issues as both sides will be required to show some level of flexibility.

US President Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron shake hands during the June 2021 G7 summit, in England


What now?

Was Washington in the wrong to have treated one of its closest allies in this way? Absolutely. Has France always been a perfect country that has never wronged any other of its partners? By no means. However, continually raising these arguments is not productive for either side and contributes to the failure of seeing the bigger picture: how do we move forward? President Joe Biden is not ignorant to the fact that he has damaged his country’s interests in Europe following his actions and that the US cannot have much leverage or clout within the EU without France as a partner.

The situation calls for a fundamental re-assessment from both sides. From America’s perspective, it will be required to rebuild and perhaps modernize its approach to Europe, which will unequivocally need to include concessions to regain France’s trust. As for Paris, it needs to have a clearer vision of the way and the extent to which it wants to engage with the US following the AUKUS scandal in terms of French priorities: Is greater European integration more important than repairing its relations with the US or is the transatlantic relationship too vital?

At least from a military standpoint, America’s support is too important to lose, implying that France cannot stay angry forever. The country will, to some extent, have to soften its stance towards Washington in order to balance its need for American assistance and its ambitions of needing it less.