France furious over new U.S. pact meant to confront China’s growing ambitions in Asia

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday tried to calm tensions with France over a new defense pact between the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia. Australia had scrapped a $40 billion submarine contract with France in favor of U.S. nuclear-powered subs. France's ambassador to the United States, Philippe Etienne, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to the U.S., British and Australian decision to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, a move sparking fury among another ally, the French.

    France had a $40 billion agreement with Australia to build 12 conventionally powered submarines. That deal is now in doubt.

    With me is the French ambassador to the U.S., Philippe Etienne.

    Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us.

    The United States, the Biden administration is saying that this is all about the Indo-Pacific, it is not directed at France.

    So, why is your government angry?

    Philippe Etienne, French Ambassador to the United States: Well, this is a point. We are also very much involved in the Indo-Pacific.

    France, of course, is a European country, but we are also an Indo-Pacific Country. We have territories, we have populations, we have armed forces, both in the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific Ocean.

    And we have presented or introduced already three years ago our own Indo-Pacific strategy with a security and military component, but also with other elements.

    And we have just updated this strategy. I know the European Union as such is presenting its own strategy. So we are very active. We also have the goal of a rule-based order, multinational order, and free circulation and democratic values in this region.

    And so we are obviously disappointed by what happened and how it happened.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mentioned the deal that France has had with Australia about selling them French-built submarines.

    But, today, we heard the Australian defense minister say — and I'm quoting — he said: "A conventional submarine will not provide us with capability after the year 2030. The French has a version that is not superior to what the Brits and the U.S. have, so we did what is best for our national security interests."

  • Philippe Etienne:

    Well, this, of course, has been discussed in the last month with our Australian colleagues and friends and was still being discussed very recently, actually.

    And we had also an exchange on the comparison of the different merits of the different categories. But we have also nuclear-powered submarines in France. And this model had been chosen by Australia. And now, if there is a newer addition by Australia, of course, it is their decision, but it means it will take more time for them.

    It is not for me to command this. But I just want to say that we have also the capacities to and the interest to discuss all of this with other involved countries. We have also the technological capacities. We had started with this category, and we thought it was a good contract, a good implemented contract.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What does this mean for the relationship between your country and the United States?

  • Philippe Etienne:

    Well, it is a difficult moment, of course, because we felt, as we had — our minister made strong statements.

    And we felt really a strong disappointment by the decision, the Australian decision first, in terms of trust, which was there, and which is not anymore there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you feel — does your government feel betrayed by the United States?

  • Philippe Etienne:

    I think that, on this very issue, we feel — we have a feeling, yes, of not being treated like an ally, which — who still — and even the American president said it, and it was obviously sincere when he said that we play — France plays a key role in the Indo-Pacific Ocean.

    Yes, we have this feeling. We — it is disappointing. It is disappointing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is it a matter a loss of trust now in the United States?

  • Philippe Etienne:

    I'm sure trust can be redeemed, but, yes, we had a — we have an issue of trust here, indeed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I also want to ask you, Mr. Ambassador, about Afghanistan.

    The United States says, the secretary of state said again today the U.S. had consulted with its European allies before the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Was there sufficient consultation? And what does what happened in Afghanistan say to you about the United States?

  • Philippe Etienne:

    We had an incredible evacuation operation in the second half of August.

    We have now the same goals. We have to resume free travel for Afghans and, of course, for our nationals. We have to fight for the rights of men and women. And we have to get the humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. And all this, we will do together. The E.U. also here must learn maybe to do more things together, in agreement with the U.S., but maybe the Europeans should be able to do more by themselves.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It sounds as if you are saying that not only France, but other European countries can't be as sure as they were before of American actions, of consultation?

  • Philippe Etienne:

    The American people don't want to be necessarily involved and to be on the front line at every time, every time we have to do something.

    So I don't think it is bad for the United States to have allies which can take the first role, with U.S. support. I think it is in the interests of everybody.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The French ambassador to the United States, Philippe Etienne.

    Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador. We appreciate it.

  • Philippe Etienne:

    Thank you very much.

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