Blinken meets Macron as US seeks to heal rift with France

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Tuesday to explore potential cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and other areas as the Biden administration moved to repair damage caused to relations by excluding France from a new security initiative.

A senior U.S. State Department official said the two discussed possible joint projects that could be announced by Macron and President Joe Biden when they meet later this month in Europe at a date and specific venue that has yet to be decided.

The official didn't elaborate on what those projects might be, but said they would likely involve the Indo-Pacific and Western efforts to blunt China's growing there and elsewhere, NATO and other trans-Atlantic objectives involving the European Union, and counterterrorism cooperation in Africa's Sahel region.

The official said Macron and Blinken had agreed to use the spat as an opportunity to “deepen and strengthen coordination” and characterized the talks as “very productive," while allowing that “a lot of hard work remains ahead.”

The official spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door talks between Macron and Blinken at the Elysee Palace that hadn't appeared on Blinken's official schedule for the day.

The roughly 40-minute, one-on-one meeting came amid French demands for the U.S. to restore trust that was ruptured with last month’s announcement of a three-way Indo-Pacific agreement between Australia, Britain and the U.S., known as AUKUS.

A French official, speaking under customary anonymity, said the “at length, face-to-face meeting” came immediately after Blinken had seen Macron's national security adviser Emmanuel Bonne. Bonne, the official said, saw Blinken “in order to study the ways of reengaging the relationship following the recall of the French ambassador, and to help restore confidence between France and the United States.”

U.S. officials have acknowledged that the announcement was handled poorly and could have benefitted from coordination with France and other members of the European Union, all of which were excluded. And, while they have also signaled a desire to make amends, they have suggested 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 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 as well as adopting a European strategy to counter growing challenges from China.

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.

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.

Former Secretary of State and current U.S. climate envoy John Kerry is also attending the OECD talks, which are taking place just weeks before the next U.N.-backed international conference on climate, in Glasgow, Scotland.

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Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.

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