French officials were furious after Australia made a deal with the U.S. and U.K. before backing away from years-long conversations with the French to acquire submarines

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France's President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden
French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden
| Credit: LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty

President Joe Biden was working the phone Wednesday in an apparent effort to smooth things over with French leader Emmanuel Macron after the friendship between the two nations hit its rockiest patch in years over what the French foreign minister called a "stab in the back."

The issue that came between the allies was no small matter, but rather a deal worth billions of dollars announced last week to provide submarines to Australia.

On a call Wednesday, Biden and President Macron spoke "in order to discuss the implications of the announcement on September 15," according to a joint statement supplied by the White House.

"The two leaders agreed that the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners. President Biden conveyed his ongoing commitment in that regard," the White House said.

France had been working for years on its plan to sell 12 conventional submarines to Australia through a French shipbuilder, CNN reports. On Sept. 15, however, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia announced a trilateral deal — in a partnership dubbed AUKUS — to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines instead.

The next day, Australia backed away from its agreement with France.

The New York Times reported that there had been mounting concerns by the Australians that the French ships would be inadequate. France, by contrast, was caught off-guard by its allies.

The submarine reversal did not go over well with their officials, reportedly sensitive to even the perception of slights by England and America. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he was "angry and bitter" about the AUKUS deal, according to CNN, adding that such a move "isn't done between allies."

Le Drian also said the action taken by the U.S. "resembles a lot of what Trump is doing" — a pointed comment in light of Biden's history with his predecessor.

In the wake of the announcement, which provoked France's public ire, the country called home its ambassador to the U.S. and canceled a reception in Washington and toned down a celebration to commemorate the 240th anniversary of a French victory over the British in 1781 at the Battle of Capes that helped the U.S. win its independence.

While the joint statement put out Wednesday by the White House struck a conciliatory tone,, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was less amiable earlier that day.

In the U.S. for a gathering of the U.N. General Assembly in New York and for meetings with Biden and other officials, Johnson told Macron, "Donnez-moi un break" ("give me a break") and suggested that "some of our dearest friends," referring to the French, "prenez un grip" ("get a grip"), the BBC reports.

Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
| Credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty

Johnson's insouciance comments come after Le Drian minimized the U.K.'s involvement in the AUKUS deal, saying over the weekend, "Great Britain in this matter is a bit of a fifth wheel on the carriage."

The plan to supply Australia with nuclear submarines is part of the Biden administration's effort to counter China in the region.

According to the White House statement about the call between Biden and Macron, "the two leaders have decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence and proposing concrete measures toward common objectives."

The statement goes on to say that the leaders will meet in Europe next month (Biden was already planning on attending the Group of 20 Summit in Rome at the end of October) and that Macron has instructed his ambassador to return to Washington to start "intensive work with senior U.S. officials" on meeting those objectives.