WASHINGTON – Forget "freedom fries," the bitter diplomatic rift between the U.S. and France over the latter country's decision not to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Enter the sub snub, a growing quarrel between Washington and Paris over the Biden administration's decision to help Australia develop a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, among other defense technologies, in a deal unveiled by the White House on Wednesday.
"A knife in the back," France's foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said in an interview with Franceinfo on Thursday, referring to Australia's decision to cut a deal with the U.S. “This is not done between allies.”
The defense pact, which also includes the United Kingdom, is meant to counter growing Chinese military aggression in the Indo-Pacific. And the Chinese are mad, too. But they're not accusing the U.S. and Australia of an epic betrayal.
Why are France's feathers so ruffled?
In light of its deal with the U.S., Australia has cancelled its submarine contract with the French, which various media reports have estimated to be worth between $50 billion and $90 billion. One Australian outlet had dubbed it the "contract of the century."
Le Drian, in a joint statement with France's defense minister, Florence Parly, took aim at both Australia and the U.S., albeit more diplomatically than in the radio interview.
"This decision is contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia," the two officials said in the statement.
"The American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region ... shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret," they added.
By Thursday afternoon, the French had cancelled an embassy soiree to celebrate the U.S.-French alliance dating back to the American Revolutionary War.
An embassy official confirmed that a reception at the ambassador's residence set for Friday to mark the 240th anniversary of the "Battle of the Capes," a French naval victory over England near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay – has been nixed. But the official said other parts of the annual celebration would still occur, including a wreath-laying ceremony on Saturday in Annapolis and the arrival of a French destroyer in Baltimore's harbor on Monday.
"The celebration of the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes has been made more sober," the embassy official said.
Whether Biden administration officials have been disinvited from a gala at the French embassy, they were clearly scrambling on Thursday.
"France in particular is a vital partner on this and so many other issues, stretching back generations," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a joint news conference with Australian officials on Thursday.
"I'll leave it to our Australian partners to describe why they sought this new technology," Blinken said. "But ... we cooperate incredibly closely with France on many shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific but also beyond, around the world."
Blinken and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. had notified French officials of the deal before it was announced. Asked about the gala cancellation, Psaki suggested Biden was nonplussed.
He "doesn’t think about it much," she said.
Meanwhile in Beijing, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry called the nuclear submarine deal "extremely irresponsible" and said it was part of an "outdated, Cold War, zero-sum mentality."
"The nuclear submarine cooperation between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts," Zhao Lijian, the spokesman, said at a daily news conference Thursday.
"The export of highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology to Australia by the US and the UK proves once again that they are using nuclear exports as a tool for geopolitical game," he said.