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Macron and Biden to meet in person for first time since Australian submarine crisis

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French President Emmanuel Macron and his US counterpart, Joe Biden, will meet in Rome ahead of the G20 summit on Friday as they seek to mend relations following the Australian submarine crisis.

The meeting between Biden and Macron at the French embassy is their first in-person opportunity to mend the diplomatic rift opened last month by the announcement of an Australia-UK-US security pact in the Indo-Pacific.

Paris reacted angrily at the AUKUS partnership and the announcement that its main component will result in Canberra scrapping a multi-billion deal for French-designed submarines in favour of technology from the US and UK.

Washington was visibly surprised by the very strong French reaction and criticism that it was not consulted despite its deal with Australia and the fact it is the only European country to have territories in the region.

A disgruntled Macron waited a week before speaking with Joe Biden, a telephone discussion that helped trigger a détente. The two leaders then launched a “process of in-depth consultations” to restore the hard-won trust between the two allies.

The aim of their tête-à-tête on Friday is to “demonstrate that we have been able to negotiate together significant elements of cooperation” which “allow us to frame the Franco-American relationship for the future,” an adviser to the French President said.

According to Pierre Morcos, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, “AUKUS will leave its mark” but “both countries seem eager to move forward and turn this diplomatic crisis into an opportunity to strengthen the bilateral partnership and rebalance transatlantic ties”.

Defence and Sahel main talking points

The Elysée is hoping to secure concrete commitments from Washington on European defence and intervention in the Sahel.

“The main thing,” the French presidential office explained, is “to get everyone to agree on the fact that there is no contradiction between European defence and the Atlantic Alliance”.

“It is virtuous to be able to distribute the roles in such a way that the Europeans are collectively more capable, more committed and more robust players, and that the Americans are, for their part, allies who are as reliable as ever,” they added.

Macron has been pushing for closer EU defence cooperation and the creation of a joint defence force that would operate, alongside, but outside of NATO.

However, Macron’s cherished “European sovereignty” arouses a certain amount of mistrust in several EU countries that rely on NATO forces, but also in the United States, where the defence industry is seeking to defend its market share on the Old Continent.

The French leader will also be aiming to secure stronger US support in the fight against jihadist groups in the Sahel.

“The American support is critical” because “it allows us to operate in better conditions,” an adviser to the French president said.

Washington said in a joint statement released after the Biden-macron telephone conversation in late September that it intends to “strengthen its support for counter-terrorism operations” but has so far not yet outlined how it plans to do so.

Biden and Pope to discuss COVID-19, poverty

Biden’s first meeting of the day will however be with Pope Francis.

“There’s a great deal of agreement and overlap with the president and Pope Francis on a range of issues: poverty, combating the climate crisis, ending the COVID-19 pandemic,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “These are all hugely important, impactful issues that will be the centrepiece of what their discussion is when they meet.”

President Biden has long cast his Catholic faith as a cornerstone of his identity, writing in his 2007 memoir “Promises to Keep” that Catholicism gave him a sense “of self, of family, of community, of the wider world.” He admits to becoming angry with God after the death of his first wife and baby daughter in a 1972 traffic accident, but Biden said he never doubted God’s existence.

Following the papal meeting, Biden will meet separately on Friday with G20 summit hosts: Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

Following this weekend’s G20 gathering, Biden will head to Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 global climate conference.

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