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U.S.-U.K.-Australia Alliance In The Indo-Pacific Irks French Government

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What made a U.S. arms deal with Australia so offensive to France? The U.S. announced a plan the other day to sell nuclear-powered submarines to its Pacific ally. The announcement cut out France, which had its own plans to sell Australia conventional submarines. Outraged over this announcement and the lack of notice, France recalled its ambassador to the United States. He went home for consultations. Fortunately, Ambassador Philippe Etienne has not been recalled from MORNING EDITION, so he's on the phone from Paris. Ambassador, welcome back to the program.

PHILIPPE ETIENNE: Yes, Steve. Good morning. Happy to be with you from Paris.

INSKEEP: How was the flight home?

ETIENNE: Well, good, but a bit sad, of course, considering the circumstances.

INSKEEP: Well, is this just a matter of money lost to French defense contractors?

ETIENNE: No. No, absolutely not. If - we have spoken about a breach of trust. If my government has recalled me, it is, of course, much more than that.

INSKEEP: What is it?

ETIENNE: Well, first, this contract first - it was not only a contract with a French company, Naval Group, but also with an American company, Lockheed Martin. And it has been correctly implemented. Even the Australian client has recognized that, contrary to some things - some mistakes which have been printed by the press. And then we have also nuclear-powered submarines. The - Australia ordered from us conventional submarines, but we could also have discussed about nuclear-powered submarines.

But the biggest issue of and the issue of trust is the following. We have deliberately been kept out of the informations about alternative discussions going on between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., between allies. And as far as the U.S. is concerned in particular, we had consistently, repeatedly underlined with our U.S. interlocuters how important it was. This contract was not only a contract; it was a cornerstone of our Indo-Pacific strategy presented by our president in Sydney - in Australia in 2018. So there is a lack of transparency. There is a breach of trust. There is unpredictability. But there is also inconsistency because France is very active in the Indo-Pacific area. And so should allies behave between themselves, among themselves, like that?

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that, Ambassador. Just to summarize, you're saying it's not just the money; it's that France was willing to provide nuclear submarines if Australia wanted. France was blindsided, you're saying. You didn't have any advance notice of this. And it undermined something that was a personal initiative of your president. Can you talk a little bit about that part of it, though? What is France's interest in the Pacific? What makes that region important to your country?

ETIENNE: I didn't say we were willing to provide this or that. We were not even asked. This was my point.

INSKEEP: Right.

ETIENNE: And of course, France is not only - but is also an Indo-Pacific country. We have territories. We have people. We have armed forces. And we have invested a lot, politically, into this Indo-Pacific strategy with military assets, with political activities. We have developed strategic partnerships, not only with Australia but with other big partners in the country - in the region, like India. So this is, of course, important for us, but it's not only important for France; it is important for Europe. And it is - like the withdrawal from Afghanistan, here again we have something to think of about the relations between the U.S. and its European allies. And I think it's being recognized right now by our European partners, also. This lack of consultancy of information - while we have also, as Europe, common goals with the U.S., but also a lot of interests - strategic interests in the region, is it normal that we behave - again, I ask the same question. Is it normal that we behave - that the U.S., in particular, behave this way with its European allies?

INSKEEP: Ambassador, I'll just mention that there were a number of European allies who also had troops in Afghanistan who said they were taken by surprise by the way the United States chose to withdraw after the defeat of the Afghan government.

ETIENNE: This is the reason why I said just after this, we have this new event, of course.

INSKEEP: Well, then the next question is - in the moment we have left - has the United States reached out to your government or to you personally in any way to say, sorry about this, we'd like to work you back in, this is what we can do about it?

ETIENNE: Well, yes, of course. What happened - we - when we heard about this new AUKUS agreement between three countries, on the morning it was - there was this big announcement, we tried to reach out. And we did. But after having learned about it in the press, we asked - informations. But then - only then we had informations. And now we have the president of the United States wanting to reach out to our president. And this conversation will be so important to start to rebuild trust. And it will happen in the next days.

INSKEEP: OK. Ambassador, thank you very much. It's always a pleasure talking with you. I hope you get back to the United States before long.

ETIENNE: Yes, I hope so. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Philippe Etienne is France's ambassador to the United States, currently in Paris after being recalled. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.