Q&A

French Ambassador on AUKUS: ‘Every Crisis Is an Opportunity’

Philippe Etienne spoke about the controversial sub deal, his recall to Paris, and a new way forward for U.S.-French relations.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
Philippe Étienne in 2014
Philippe Etienne, then-French ambassador to Germany, poses in his office at the French Embassy in Berlin on Nov. 12, 2014. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

There has perhaps been no greater diplomatic crisis between the United States and France in modern history than last month’s so-called AUKUS deal. Washington announced a strategic partnership with the United Kingdom and Australia to provide Canberra with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines as a bulwark against China.

The deal upstaged France, which had its own multibillion-dollar submarine contract with Australia, and also upended France’s own strategy to deepen its role in the Indo-Pacific. Furious French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the move something U.S. President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, would have done—a comparison on the minds of many of France’s European Union partners who had great hopes for a Biden presidency. For the first time in France’s nearly 250-year relationship with the United States, Paris recalled its ambassador from Washington; Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron later mended fences.

On Tuesday, Foreign Policy spoke with French Ambassador to the United States Philippe Etienne at his residence in Washington, as Biden and Macron prepare to meet later this month in Rome. Etienne didn’t pull any punches about his country’s umbrage—and indeed, confusion—over the submarine announcement. At the same time, he spoke of France’s desire to turn the latest crisis into an opportunity: to chart a future U.S.-Franco relationship that considers today’s challenges, advances Macron’s ideas for a greater degree of European strategic autonomy in defense and security, and above all, prioritizes consultation—and honesty.

There has perhaps been no greater diplomatic crisis between the United States and France in modern history than last month’s so-called AUKUS deal. Washington announced a strategic partnership with the United Kingdom and Australia to provide Canberra with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines as a bulwark against China.

The deal upstaged France, which had its own multibillion-dollar submarine contract with Australia, and also upended France’s own strategy to deepen its role in the Indo-Pacific. Furious French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the move something U.S. President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, would have done—a comparison on the minds of many of France’s European Union partners who had great hopes for a Biden presidency. For the first time in France’s nearly 250-year relationship with the United States, Paris recalled its ambassador from Washington; Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron later mended fences.

On Tuesday, Foreign Policy spoke with French Ambassador to the United States Philippe Etienne at his residence in Washington, as Biden and Macron prepare to meet later this month in Rome. Etienne didn’t pull any punches about his country’s umbrage—and indeed, confusion—over the submarine announcement. At the same time, he spoke of France’s desire to turn the latest crisis into an opportunity: to chart a future U.S.-Franco relationship that considers today’s challenges, advances Macron’s ideas for a greater degree of European strategic autonomy in defense and security, and above all, prioritizes consultation—and honesty.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: So let’s get AUKUS out of the way. What went wrong?

Philippe Etienne: Its a question first and foremost for the Australians. What we had this year was a contract, which was signed in 2016. It was a strategic choice by Australia to build its own submarines. The choice was to have nonnuclear, traditional diesel propulsion submarines and to have an industry developed in Australia. And the French shipbuilding company was there to do that with the Australians. It was on track, and it was even said by a letter received by the French company on Sept. 15, on the very day of the announcement of AUKUS. So it was difficult for us to understand why suddenly we heard about something completely different.

It was a new option, an alternative we had not heard of before from the three countries participating in this alternative. And to understand why this new option, which is basically the beginning of an 18-month study, is better—but it’s Australia’s choice. Of course, we do not question the right of Australia to take sovereign decisions. What we could not understand was a complete lack of information and consultations.

FP: France has never recalled its ambassador from Washington before. Relations with the Trump administration were very tough, but you were patient. Why now, under the Biden administration, did you take this action?

PE: It is not a question of being patient or not. Under the Trump administration, we disagreed with many, many, many decisions taken by the U.S. Just to give you one example, when then-U.S. President [Donald] Trump announced that he would take the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, our president immediately reacted on the very same day. But the question then was not only a bilateral question. It was about saving the Paris climate agreement, and we did that.

But the issue was completely different this time. It was a bilateral crisis in terms of a loss of trust, and it seemed to us that the best way to react was to have this strong reaction, to take this strong step: recalling the ambassador, recalling me for consultations, which meant first a strong expression of our disappointment toward an important ally and also to reflect on what it meant. And if possible, and this did indeed happen, to start finding ways of reengaging because its so important. So this recall for consultations was indeed something quite unusual. But it was also well tailored for this moment.

FP: The Brits are saying this is more about a Gaullist type of pride regarding Frances place in the world than any snub to Europe.

PE: I disagree with this from two perspectives. Its true that it was not only an issue with a contract, a commercial contract, or an industrial partnership. It was broader than that.

The real issue was that it was an essential part of our strategic partnership with Australia and our Indo-Pacific strategy, and the U.S., like Australia, knew that it was as such.

We have territories in the Indian Ocean. We have territories in the Pacific Ocean. We have permanent forces on our territories. We are an Indo-Pacific nation. We have to protect our people, our territories. So we project forces on top of what we have permanently through the Pacific Ocean. And finally, yes, there is a European dimension. The irony is that the same day AUKUS was announced, the European Union published its own Indo-Pacific strategy.

FP: What does this do to the European Unions strategy? You were trying to coordinate this with the United States. Does that throw all of this into disarray?

PE: It was a bad signal to have the two events, by coincidence, happening the same day, but it doesnt change our willingness on the French, and I assume, on the European side to develop this Indo-Pacific strategy because this region is essential not only for the U.S. or for the Asian nations or for the Pacific nations. Its also a big, big stake for Europe, and we see how important it is strategically, economically, environmentally, and we will keep this as a priority. And I can tell you it will remain a priority of the French presidency of the European Union, which starts on Jan. 1 next year.

FP: Some people in Washington said when you recalled your ambassador, France was punching above its weight.

PE: I dont know who says that, but anyway, we decide for ourselves. And I explained to you already why we took this decision: not—

FP: In punishment?

PE: Not in punishment, not because we consider we are important or not important, but because it was the right way to express our disappointment after what happened. And I think that it was well understood on this side. On the American side, it has led to this reengagement, which is really important. And frankly, when you see how close the relations are between our armies, all security structures, I can see that France is an important partner for the intelligence community, for the armed forces. They know what we can do.

Look at Africa, for instance. The U.S. has not so many allies, which are ready to project their forces to take a military leadership in a fight against terrorism—and, of course, with critical support, with critical capacities from the U.S. and with many other European countries. But still, how many allies does the U.S. have? So I dont think there is an under-appreciation on the side of the American partners who work in this field.

FP: The French foreign minister said the French felt this was something Trump would have done. But then, the Biden administration could be accused of continuing Trumps policies on foreign policy a little more broadly, no?

PE: Well, you know, any government has to take into account the interests of its own people. In Europe, we have to do the same. It is a little what we say when we want to build European sovereignty in the world as it is. Because if you want to defend the interests of your people, you have to be able to make the right decisions for them. So its a matter of sovereignty. So there is no question that every government—the U.S., the Europeans—have to look at what is in the interests of their countries, of their people, which means that there can be elements of continuity when you go from one administration to another, not only in the U.S. but also in other democracies.

The real problem we have encountered was again more a problem of behavior between allies. This was not an issue of acting for the interests of your own people because we must do that too. And this is what we call building our European sovereignty.

FP: I want to come back to that, but—the trade agenda, the ongoing tariffs. Was Trump an aberration, or is this the new normal? After 70 years, is the trans-Atlantic mind meld coming to an end?

PE: On trade issues, maybe a couple of elements. First, of course, we must avoid trade conflicts between the U.S. and Europe, which are counterproductive for our two sides. It is a good thing that the Airbus-Boeing dispute has been settled for at least five years to find a permanent solution. We should do the same for the steel and aluminum tariffs, although it is very sensitive.

But our interest, including because we face growing competition, especially from China, is to solve our disputes. This is the first thing. A second thing is that we realize that we have to cooperate. Generally speaking, to build a more level playing field, facing countries that have strong subsidies, that strongly subsidize their companies through the state. China is, of course, the most important country in this category. And so we should aim together with the U.S. and EU at reforming the World Trade Organization to get this more level playing field.

My third element is that in our trade policies, we see both in Europe and the U.S. the importance of reconciling open trade, which is really important for our growth and also social considerations. The best example is in climate: If we want to raise our ambitions against climate change and if other jurisdictions do not do that, we have to avoid both carbon leakage but also jobs leakage. And this is what we propose with a carbon border adjustment mechanism.

FP: Do you take Bidens comments about European defense and strategic autonomy to mean that hes supportive of it?

PE: Well, the joint statement by the two presidents states clearly that the U.S. really supports a stronger European defense, complementary to NATO. And this is a really important point. Why? Because the interests of the U.S. and of our alliance, trans-Atlantic alliance, is that the Europeans in their neighborhood are able to take things into their hands when the U.S. is not willing to do it, and Europe does not always have to rely on the U.S. to take military leadership for everything. So if we build a stronger European pillar in our alliance, it will make the U.S. more secure, and it will make the alliance stronger.

FP: There are some divergences though. Like with secondary sanctions on Iran, where any entity that does business with Iran is sanctioned by the U.S. That takes away the autonomy of 400 million people to chart their own foreign policy. I cant imagine that sits very well in Europe.

PE: No, this is not new but is indeed one of the issues that we have between the U.S. and Europe, which is the extraterritorial effect of some U.S. sanctions. And this is something where we need more coordination and more consultation, of course.

FP: What is the trajectory of the Franco-American relationship? You talked about starting from a new place after this crisis.

PE: I think that every crisis is an opportunity. If we want to seize this opportunity, it is not only to restart where we were before AUKUS. Its really to build something stronger based on real consultations on what is essential for us on those issues: Indo-Pacific, the fight against terrorism, European defense, and others. I dont know whether we’ll succeed, but it is clearly a goal set by the U.S. president and the French president.

FP: It sounds like from what youre saying, France and the U.S. will stay married, but it’s an open marriage now, where you each pursue your own interests.

PE: France is among the top five largest investors in the United States by the number of jobs created. French companies investing in the U.S. have created 800,000 jobs. We have 10, 12 French tech hubs in 10 or 12 of the biggest American cities. This is a very, very solid base. If you add to this—the military cooperation, the bilateral cooperation in all domains essential for national security—this is the foundation on which we want to build.

Of course, you mentioned open marriage. In the last 70 years, France has been an ally but one which always said its own opinion. You remember—

FP: Youve always been with the United States but also nonaligned in a way.

PE: We agree on the fundamental values. But we are, I think, an honest ally. We say when we disagree, and we are not here to be always in agreement. But on the fundamental issues, we agree. And when we disagree, we say it. I think the U.S. needs such allies.

FP: What do you mean exactly when you talk about European sovereignty and strategic autonomy?

PE: For me, the most meaningful concept is one of European sovereignty: the European countries that have founded and joined the European Union. The basic principle is its accepted to pool sovereignty because we are stronger together. And in some domains, we must delegate powers like we do in trade policy. For instance, there is an EU trade policy, which represents all EU member states.

And this idea of European sovereignty means for me that if the European nations, which are sovereign nations, want to defend their interests, they need to act together as a European Union to be stronger, to be more efficient.

For instance, the EU is a true world leader on the fight against climate change. The EU is the world leader in development assistance, including now in the fight against COVID-19. And so we have to build these instruments. It is not that we are not any more sovereign nations, but we decided to be more efficient in terms of defending our people. We need to build this European sovereignty.

FP: Does Brexit and the fact that Britain is no longer part of the EU in the mind of America make European integration less important?

PE: I dont know. It could reinforce the European Union as an integration because not only was the United Kingdom not part of the Schengen Area [the European free movement zone] or wasnt part of the euro, but it was also because the other EU members have seen what it means, and it was such a difficult negotiation.

So I dont know what it means for public opinion here in the U.S., but we see through each crisis—the subprime debt and sovereign debt crisis, the migration crisis, the COVID-19 crisis—every time you find leaps. For the first time, the European Union decided to raise money on behalf of European countries. The European Union as such has decided to raise money on the financial markets and to give it to European countries to fight against the consequences of COVID-19. Somebody who could be the next German chancellor, I think it was Minister [Olaf] Scholz, Vice Chancellor Scholz called it, I think, a Hamiltonian moment.

FP: So as the U.S. pivots more to Asia, or should we say focuses more on China, does that result in a stronger EU?

PE: You touched a very important point, but it is not the American pivot or reorientation. It is China itself. The rise of Chinese power is one element that drives the European nations to develop their own Chinese policy and develop the EU. Its a new development. It has nothing to do with the fact that the U.S. itself is focusing on China. The European nations also see the consequences for them.

FP: But you dont necessarily see China in the same exact way as the U.S.

PE: Look, Japan, the EU, Australia, India, the U.S., we are all in different positions in our relations with China. Its normal, but we have in Europe developed our own EU-Chinese policy for the first time since 2019. We have developed a policy based on the principle of reciprocity, and we have developed new instruments—for instance, screening of strategic investments. So I think that in the U.S., [people have not] valued the evolution in Europe on this.

FP: Is that an area where strategic autonomy is going to be very important for you to chart your own course with China? Is that the first test?

PE: We have a lot of agreement on human rights, for instance, on values. We have plenty of shared principles of free circulation, maritime circulation. We agree on plenty of the essentials.

FP: What about Russia? During the G-7 and NATO meetings, the United States was eager to rebalance the focus to China, whereas Europe argued China is a strategic long-term challenge, but Russia is the imminent threat.

PE: Well, you cannot change geography. Russia is in Europe, our neighbor. But we observe that President Biden decided to meet [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin and that the U.S. decided to open a strategic stability dialogue with Russia. So I dont think that we disagree fundamentally on the way we have to work with Russia, both with very firm positions but also with some kind of dialogue. Our only request as Europeans because its about the security of Europe, the security of the European continent, the security of our European countries. Here, too, we ask for consultations between the U.S. and its European allies on what is being discussed with Russia because its about our security.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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