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U.S. Deal To Build Nuclear Submarines For Australia Causing Tensions With France


A diplomatic incident is heating up across the Atlantic. France has recalled its ambassador to the U.S. and Australia. That is a rare and serious step. It's part of the fallout from a deal the U.S. made with the United Kingdom to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia. The agreement was announced this week in response to China's escalating military presence in the South China Sea. But it left out the French and scuttled a deal that France says it had to build Australia's submarines. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joins us from Paris. Eleanor, thanks so much.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: Eleanor, France, of course, is - as we hear endlessly - the oldest ally and an important one of the United States. Recalling your ambassador is a very sharp step.

BEARDSLEY: Yes, it is. You know, France says it was blindsided by this announcement between the U.K., the U.S. and Australia. It's seen as a stinging public humiliation. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the submarine deal between the three, which scuttles a French deal, unacceptable behavior between allies. The day before that, he called it a stab in the back by the Australians. France had its own defense deal with Australia for 12 conventional submarines. That was negotiated in 2016. It was a massive $43 billion deal, Scott. And now it's off.

SIMON: Yeah.

BEARDSLEY: ...Because Australia just abruptly canceled that when it went with the U.S. So France is completely shocked by how things came about.

SIMON: What about the French public? Is this an issue that seems important there, too?

BEARDSLEY: Well, you know, the general public didn't know about the deal for submarines between France and Australia, but it did know that, you know, the Biden administration was the new friendly America back after the discord over the Trump years. So this has been covered heavily in the news and by the media. You know, so people are following - yes, it's seen as a betrayal by the Biden administration. You know, not even in the run up to the Iraq War, which the French opposed, did we have this sort of rancor. You know, France is America's oldest ally. And actually, they went so far yesterday - the French Embassy in Washington canceled an event last night that was to celebrate a battle fought by Washington and Lafayette in the Revolutionary War. That was canceled.

SIMON: Eleanor, what seems to be the U.S. interest in making this deal? What do they hope to gain by the partnership with the UK and Australia that leaves out France?

BEARDSLEY: Well, you know, this is a perfect example of realpolitik. You know, the White House is trying to paper over it, saying, you know, France is an old ally, and our alliance is still crucial. But I spoke with analyst Dominique Moisi, who's with the Montaigne Institute. And he says this is all part of the pivot to Asia - the new world order - which makes old allies not as important. Listen to what he says here.

DOMINIQUE MOISI: The French were considered as a minor party compared with the key interest of deterring China. History has moved from Europe, the Middle East, now to Asia and Europe. And therefore, France are marginalized.

SIMON: And how important an ally, if I might put it in realpolitik terms, is France for the U.S. on China and other key issues?

BEARDSLEY: Well, with regard to China, France and Europe recognize that China is an authoritarian system mistreating its Muslim population and handled the pandemic not very well. So they're wary. But China is also a major trade partner. And let me note that France has interests in the Pacific. It has islands there. It has strategic interests. But France is looking for a third way in the Pacific. It doesn't want to get caught in a fight between China and the U.S. And this defense deal with Australia was part of France's way of constructing a third way of dealing with China in the Pacific.

SIMON: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, thanks so much for being with us.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.