PARIS (AP) — Talk about ignoring the elephant in the room: When she met this week with French President Emmanuel Macron, Vice President Kamala Harris says she didn’t even discuss the secret submarine deal that plunged U.S.-French relations to a historic low.
On a four-day trip to France seen as a charm offensive, Harris said that instead she focused her visit on “our mutual interest” in European security and Africa, fighting the pandemic and cooperating to make cyberspace safer.
Both sides stressed that relations are moving into a “new era” — and the fact that they didn't even talk about the submarine problem drove that point home.
The crux of the issue: A secretly negotiated U.S.-British submarine deal with Australia announced in September that scuttled a prior, $66 billion French-Australian submarine contract. The U.S. agreement was framed around concern in Washington about China’s military aggressiveness in the region.
But France was livid, saying it was kept in the dark about the deal and its interests were ignored despite having territories in the Indo-Pacific with 2 million people and 7,000 troops. The French accused the Biden administration of actions reminiscent of the Trump era.
The dispute “was not the purpose of the trip and we didn’t discuss it,” Harris told reporters Friday. At her meeting Wednesday with Macron, she said, “What we did discuss is the issues that are challenging us."
She said her presence itself in France shows “the importance of alliances," and that the dispute was a reminder of both the “strength and fragility” of diplomatic relationships.
“We can't take relationships for granted,” she added.
After recalling France's ambassador for the first time in 250 years of diplomatic relations at the height of the crisis, Macron this week seemed ready to move forward — and happy to have Harris at his side as he hosted three days of international summits that put him and France center stage.
She and Macron agreed Wednesday that their countries are ready to work together again, though few firm U.S. promises have emerged from her trip, Harris' first to Europe as vice president. It comes after President Joe Biden told Macron the U.S. had been “clumsy” in handling the submarine issue.
Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff made a concerted effort to make up for that faux-pas while in Paris.
They visited a cemetery holding the graves of more than 1,500 Americans who died fighting for France in the two world wars, and she stood alongside Macron at a solemn Armistice Day ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe. Emhoff met with French groups fighting against inequality, and attended a no-cost cooking class for young people.
Stressing the theme of “America is back” on the global diplomatic stage, Harris reiterated U.S. hopes to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran, and took part in an international conference aimed at supporting Libya's upcoming elections after a decade of chaos and violence.
She and Macron also discussed tensions on the Belarus-Poland border, where thousands of migrants have amassed trying to enter the EU, encouraged by Belarusian authorities. “The eyes of the world and its leaders are watching what is happening there," she said, without elaborating on what steps the U.S. might take.
With virus cases picking up across France and Europe, Harris shied away from a suggestion that the U.S. require virus vaccination passes similar to those used in several European countries to enter restaurants and other public venues.
Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.