Blinken, In Paris, Seeks To Heal AUKUS Rift With France

PARIS (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought Tuesday to repair damage to U.S.-France relations caused by the Biden administration's exclusion of America's oldest ally from a new Indo-Pacific security initiative.

Blinken met French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and was to see President Emmanuel Macron's national security adviser later in a bid to restore trust between the countries, particularly as it relates to countering growing challenges from China but also more generally.

Blinken and Le Drian kicked off the meeting with a private "walking tour" of the Quai d'Orsay, the French foreign ministry headquarters, before sitting down for formal talks with senior aides. The two exchanged pleasantries with Blinken saying "it's a pleasure to be here" but neither responded to questions shouted by reporters.

The Biden administration has acknowledged that last month's announcement of a three-way Indo-Pacific agreement between Australia, Britain and the U.S. known as AUKUS was handled poorly. But it has also signaled a desire to make amends even while suggesting France's rage is an overreaction.

France responded with fury to the announcement that also scuttled a multibillion-dollar submarine contract it had with Australia, and briefly recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra in an unprecedented display of pique.

French officials called it a stab in the back by allies and expressed disappointment that it had happened after President Joe Biden had proclaimed "America is back" and pledged to restore and value trans-Atlantic relations that had soured during the Trump administration.

The French have said repeatedly it will take much time and work to overcome the rift and that the incident underscores the need for Europe to develop its own security and defense plans.

Ahead of Tuesday's meetings, Le Drian's office reiterated that the "crisis" involves more than just France and was a snub to the broader European Union of which Britain is no longer a member. The foreign ministry said it involves "the interests of all Europeans regarding the functioning of our alliances and the engagement of Europeans in the Indo-Pacific."

Blinken is in the French capital for a two-day international economic conference that has been overshadowed by the AUKUS controversy that erupted on Sept. 15 with the announcement of the project.

Ahead of his visit, his second to France as secretary of state but first since the rupture, Blinken met Friday with French Ambassador Philippe Etienne on his return to Washington after having been recalled to Paris by Macron.

Blinken, a fluent French speaker who grew up and went to high school in Paris, has expressed disappointment that the France has reacted so harshly to AUKUS. He and others have suggested some degree of French anger is related to domestic French politics and the shifting dynamics within the EU, which will soon see Angela Merkel depart as the leader of Germany after 16 years in power.

Blinken's visit follows a Sept. 22 phone call between Biden and Macron, who have agreed to try to calm matters and are due to meet in Europe later this month.

The ostensible reason for Blinken's trip to France, which had been planned well before the AUKUS ruckus, is to co-chair a ministerial meeting of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on Tuesday and Wednesday about climate change and security.