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Watching For France's Next Move Following The U.S.-Australia Submarine Deal

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden and Emmanuel Macron of France seem to be trying to patch up their differences over the new U.S. nuclear submarine contract with Australia. The deal cancelled an existing contract the French had with Australia. It also forced France to look at new options for its policy in the Pacific.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has more.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: France signed its own submarine deal with Australia in 2016. The $66 billion contract for 12 conventional subs was a key part of France's overall strategy in the Indo-Pacific, where it's the only European nation with sovereign interests, says Antoine Bondaz, Asia specialist with the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

ANTOINE BONDAZ: There are more than 1.6 million French people living in French overseas territories, from the Reunion Island to the French Polynesia. There are 7,000 soldiers permanently deployed in the region. So it's not only about foreign policy for the French; it's also about how we develop, how we promote, how we defend citizens and territories in the Indo-Pacific.

BEARDSLEY: France has nuclear subs, says Bondaz. But five years ago, Australia didn't ask for them. Australia, like France, wanted strategic autonomy and didn't want to poke China. Australia's population was overwhelmingly anti-nuclear.

But the stakes in the region have now drastically changed with China's aggressive military and economic posturing, says Dominique Moisi, head analyst with the Montaigne Institute.

DOMINIQUE MOISI: The Australians switched from France to America not because the submarines America was offering them was nuclear, but because it was American. They felt that when things were becoming serious in Asia, when Chinese ambition had to be contained, America was better than France.

BEARDSLEY: The French foreign minister said the brutality and unpredictability of the Biden administration recalled the behavior of President Trump. But Moisi says the French have to wake up to America's new priorities.

MOISI: History has moved from Europe, the Middle East now to Asia and Europe, and therefore France are marginalized.

BEARDSLEY: The EU supported France in the submarine diplomatic crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL ROTH: (Speaking German).

BEARDSLEY: Germany's Minister for Europe, Michael Roth, called the incident a wake-up call for the EU, which he said must unite on issues of foreign and security policy.

EU-China relations have degraded in the last year, says Bondaz. But China remains an important trade partner. Europeans don't want to be caught in the middle of U.S.-China tensions.

BONDAZ: They just want to make sure they're not always fully aligned on the U.S., that there remains some form of autonomy.

BEARDSLEY: Europeans don't have the capacity to exercise military power in the Indo-Pacific, says Bondaz. But Europe can certainly project its power in a different way, using its economic strength, access to technology and its leadership on environmental issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEAN-YVES LE DRIAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Speaking on the nightly news, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Europe is not naive about China's behavior, but it wants to face China with economic competition rather than what he called America's tactics of military confrontation.

Analyst Moisi says France would be much stronger if its initiatives were seen as European.

MOISI: And unfortunately, this is not the case. Great Britain has left Europe. Germany is not ready to play big-power politics. Poland and most East European countries are closer to Washington when it comes to defense than they are to Brussels.

BEARDSLEY: The third way may be a noble path, says Moisi, but it's a very difficult one.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHO'S "EMINENCE FRONT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.