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French envoy to return to US after fence-mending Biden-Macron call

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The US and French presidents moved to mend ties on Wednesday (22 September), with France agreeing to send its ambassador back to Washington and the White House acknowledging it erred in brokering a deal for Australia to buy US instead of French submarines without consulting Paris, write Michel Rose, Jeff Mason, Arshad Mohammed, John Irish in Paris, Humeyra Pamuk in New York and by Simon Lewis, Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Phil Stewart and Heather Timmons in Washington.

In a joint statement issued after US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by telephone for 30 minutes, the two leaders agreed to launch in-depth consultations to rebuild trust, and to meet in Europe at the end of October.

They said Washington had committed to step up "support to counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel conducted by European states" which US officials suggested meant a continuation of logistical support rather than deploying US special forces.

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Biden's call to Macron was an attempt to mend fences after France accused the United States of stabbing it in the back when Australia ditched a $40 billion contract for conventional French submarines, and opted for nuclear-powered submarines to be built with U.S. and British technology instead. Read more.

Outraged by the US, British and Australian deal, France recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.

"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," the joint U.S. and French statement said.

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"President Biden conveyed his ongoing commitment in that regard."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, interacting for the first time since the submarine crisis erupted, had a 'good exchange' on the margins of a wider meeting at the United Nations on Wednesday, a senior State Department official told reporters in a call.

The two top diplomats were likely to have a separate bilateral meeting on Thursday. "We do expect that they’ll have some time together bilaterally tomorrow," the official said, and added that Washington 'very very much welcomed' France and European Union's deep engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a collective award ceremony at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France September 20, 2021. Stefano Rellandini/Pool via REUTERS
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a joint statement with Chile's President Sebastian Pinera (not seen) after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, September 6, 2021. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/File Photo

Earlier on Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki described the call as "friendly" and sounded hopeful about improving ties.

"The president has had a friendly phone call with the president of France where they agreed to meet in October and continue close consultations and work together on a range of issues," she told reporters.

Asked if Biden apologized to Macron, she said: "He acknowledged that there could have been greater consultation."

The new US, Australian and British security partnership (AUKUS) was widely seen as designed to counter China's growing assertiveness in the Pacific but critics said it undercut Biden's broader effort to rally allies such as France to that cause.

Biden administration officials suggested the US commitment to "reinforcing its support to counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel" region of West Africa meant a continuation of existing efforts.

France has a 5,000 strong counter-terrorism force fighting Islamist militants across the Sahel.

It is reducing its contingent to 2,500-3,000, moving more assets to Niger, and encouraging other European countries to provide special forces to work alongside local forces. The United States provides logistical and intelligence support.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US military would continue to support French operations, but declined to speculate about potential increases or changes in U.S. assistance.

"When I saw the verb reinforce, what I took away was that we're going to stay committed to that task," he told reporters.

Africa

France accused of 'still controlling' some of its former colonies in Africa

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France has been accused of “clandestinely exercising control” over francophone African countries since they formally obtained freedom.

The French colonial encounter in West Africa was driven by commercial interests and, perhaps to a lesser degree, a civilizing mission.

By the close of the Second World War the colonized peoples of French West Africa were making their dissatisfaction with the colonial system heard.

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As of 2021, France still retains the largest military presence in Africa of any former colonial power.

France maintains a tight stranglehold in Francophone Africa, both to serve its interests and maintain a last bastion of imperial prestige.

France is accused of forcing African countries to give preference to French interests and companies in the field of public procurement and public biding.

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It is argued that one such example of where France is said to be still exercising an unhealthy control in Africa is Mali which fell under French colonial rule in 1892 but became fully independent in 1960.

France and Mali still have a strong connection. Both are members of Organisation internationale de la Francophonie and there are over 120,000 Malians in France.

But, it has argued that current events in Mali have once again put the spotlight on the often turbulent relationship between the two countries.

After all its recent turbulence, Mali, currently led by a new interim leader, is only now just starting to get back on its feet again, albeit very slowly.

However, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the UN and the African Union - and especially France -  appear to be in no hurry to recognise Assimi Goita, the former interim Vice-President and current transitional leader of Mali, as a legitimate candidate for upcoming presidential elections despite a decision apparently to the contrary by Mali’s Constitutional Court.

The French media have often called Colonel Goita as "the boss of the junta", and "the head of the military junta" and French President Emmanuel Macron described the May coup, which Goita led, as a "coup within a coup”.

Tensions between the two countries intensified when Mali recently summoned France’s ambassador to the country to register its “indignation” at President Macron’s recent criticism of the country’s government.

This came after President Macron suggested that Mali’s government was “not even really one” – because of the Goita-led coup in Mali in May. The war of words continued when President Macron called on Mali’s ruling military to restore state authority in large areas of the country which he said had been abandoned in the face of the armed uprising.

Colonel Goita installed a civilian-led interim government after the first coup in August last year. But he then deposed the leaders of that government this May in a second coup.

This also comes against a backdrop of violence in the Sahel, a band of arid land that borders the south edge of the Sahara Desert, that has intensified in recent years despite the presence of thousands of UN, regional and Western troops.

The current political changes in Mali have attracted much international attention.But, according to Fernando Cabrita questions of a different kind also need addressing.

Fernando Cabrita is a Portuguese lawyer, expert in international law, co-founder of the SOCIEDADE DE ADVOGADOS law firm. Fernando Cabrita has been writing for several regional, national and foreign newspapers and has a wide experience in international civil law.

He argues that these include asking what is the future of the country in terms of peace and security, what political decisions will strengthen the position of Mali in general and the position of its current interim leader in particular.

In an interview with this website, Cabrita gave his assessment on recent events in the West African country, particularly from the judicial view point.

He recalls, that in May 2021, the Malian transitional president, Bah Ndaw, and his prime minister, Moctar Ouane, were arrested by members of the armed forces, as Goita, then vice-president, suspected them of sabotaging the transitional process (allegedly under French influence).

Bah Ndaw and Moctar Ouane resigned, and the power shifted to Goita, a young Malian leader, who shares what is seen as strong anti-French sentiment that has been rising in Mali for some long time.

Cabrita says such a change in Mali’s political landscape is seen as “disagreeable” to France, the long-standing “partner” of Mali and its former colonial master.

He claims, “France has been clandestinely exercising control over francophone African countries since they formally obtained freedom”.

He cites France’s Operation Barkhane as a means for Paris to maintain “a significant military force” in the region.

In June, Paris began re-organising its forces deployed in the Sahel under Operation Barkhane, including by pulling out of its northernmost bases in Mali at Kidal, Timbuctu and Tessalit.Total numbers in the region are to be cut from 5,000 today to between 2,500 and 3,000 by 2023.

Cabrita says that now that Barkhane is being turned into a smaller mission, Paris is “desperate to solidify its influence through political means.”

Using the media, he says some Western countries, led by France, have tried to water down the political power of Colonel Goïta by portraying him an “illegitimate”, or unqualified, leader.

However, according to Cabrita, such attacks are groundless.

He says the Transitional Charter, signed in September 2020, that, says Cabrita, is often used to undermine Goita’s credentials, “cannot be recognised as a document with any legal force as it was adopted with a number of serious irregularities.”

He said, “The charter contravenes Mali’s constitution and it was not ratified through appropriate instruments. As such it is the decisions taken by the constitutional court that should take precedence above all others.”

On May 28, 2021, the Constitutional Court of Mali declared Colonel Goïta as the head of State and President of the transitional period, making him the leader of the country de jure.

Another factor that supports Goita’s legitimacy, says Cabrita, is the fact that the national community and international players recognise him (Goita) as the representative of Mali.

According to the recent opinion polls, Goita’s ratings among Mali’s public are rising upwards, with people approving of his determination to end the current violence in the country and deliver democratic elections in accordance with the agreed timetable.

Cabrita states, “Goita’s popularity among the people make him the most appropriate candidate for the position of the president of the country.”

But will Goita be eligible to take part in the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for February? Cabrita insists that he should be allowed to stand.

“Even though the Article 9 of the Charter prohibits the President of the Transitional period and the Deputy from participating in Presidential and parliamentary elections to be held during the end of the transitional period, the invalidity of this document and its internal contradictions leave all the important decisions to the Constitutional court. 

“Due to the fact that the Transitional Charter is an unconstitutional document, its provisions cannot restrict anyone's civil rights, including Goita.”

Mali’s Constitution, which dates to 199 and continues to be applied in the country, defines the procedures, conditions and nomination of candidates for presidential elections.

Cabrita added, “Article 31 of the constitution states that each candidate for the post of President of the Republic must be a Malian citizen by origin and also be granted all his or hers civil and political rights. So, on the basis of this (that is, the constitution), Goïta has the right to stand as a candidate for the presidential elections in Mali.

“If he is allowed to stand for President it will mark the start of a new chapter for all francophone African countries, not just Mali.”

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Brexit

French minister Beaune: French fishermen must not pay for UK's Brexit failure

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Fishing trawlers are docked at Boulogne-sur-Mer after Britain and the European Union brokered a last-minute post-Brexit trade deal, northern France, December 28, 2020. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said today (8 October) that French fishermen must not pay for the failure of Britain's exit from the European Union, writes Dominique Vidalon, Reuters.

"They failed on Brexit. It was a bad choice. Threatening us, threatening our fishermen, will not settle their supply of turkey at Christmas," Beaune told BFM TV.

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"We will hold firm. The Brits need us to sell their products," he added.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Jean Castex said France was ready to review bilateral cooperation with Britain if London continues to ignore the agreement reached over fishing rights in its post-Brexit trading relationship with the European Union. Read more.

Paris is infuriated by London's refusal to grant what it considers the full number of licenses due to French fishing boats to operate in Britain's territorial waters, and is threatening retaliatory measures.

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French fishermen have also said they could block the northern port of Calais and Channel Tunnel rail link, both major transit points for trade between Britain and continental Europe, if London does not grant more fishing licences in the next 17 days.

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France

In post-Merkel EU, Macron can't exert leadership without allies

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FILE PHOTO; French President Emmanuel Macron looks on as he visits the Richelieu site of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (National Library of France), after the completion of the renovation project and the 300th anniversary of the installation of the royal collections, in Paris, France, September 28, 2021. Bertrand Guay/Pool via REUTERS

Angela Merkel's exit from the EU stage she dominated for 16 years has handed French President Emmanuel Macron an opportunity to take up the mantle of European leadership and press on with his plans for a more independent Europe, write Michel Rose, John Irish and Leigh Thomas.

Not so fast, diplomats from countries across the European Union say.

The energetic French leader has sought to bring a clarity of strategic vision that the bloc under Merkel, often dubbed the "Queen of Europe", at times lacked and Brussels has often adopted his vernacular.

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But in a post-war Europe founded on consensus, Macron's direct and abrasive style, coupled with a willingness to go it alone in a bid to shape EU strategy, means he will struggle to fill Merkel's shoes, senior diplomats across the region said.

"It's not like Macron can lead Europe alone. No. He has to realise that he has to be careful. He can't expect people to jump on the French bandwagon," one diplomat posted to Paris from one of the EU's founding nations said.

"Merkel had an extraordinary place. She was listening to everyone, respectful of everyone."

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Tellingly, Macron found few swift voices of support among European allies when Australia scrapped a mega defence deal for submarines from France. Read more.

The silence pointed to deep opposition among central and European countries with Macron's vision of European defence autonomy and a reduced reliance on U.S. military protection from Russia.

Despite an effort to show eastern EU countries more love than past French presidents, countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea, which see the United States as the only credible shield from Russia, were appalled when Macron called NATO "brain-dead" and urged dialogue with Moscow.

Macron's office did not reply to a request for comment on the criticism. French officials admit privately his strategy to engage Russian President Vladimir Putin has yielded scant results.

"We could have told him how this Russia policy would end up," an ambassador to France from an eastern European country scoffed. "We understand Macron needs contacts with Russia. Merkel did too. But it's the way he went about it."

WOOING DRAGHI, RUTTE

To be sure, Merkel also pushed projects that deeply divided EU members, such as the Nordstream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany. But she was always careful to avoid the kind of defiant rhetoric that Macron has been accustomed to, the diplomats said.

"France has a vision but it's often too assertive and Macron's leadership can sometimes be disruptive," said Georgina Wright of the Institut Montaigne think tank in Paris. "The Franco-German tandem is very important but Macron, to his credit, realises it isn't enough," she added.

Several diplomats cited two leaders who would be crucial to Macron's future success in Europe regardless of the outcome of Germany's coalition negotiations after Sunday's election, in which Merkel's conservative bloc slumped to a record low result: Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Macron has already started to woo Draghi, a respected former European Central Bank chief credited with saving the euro, inviting the Italian to his summer retreat before the visit was cancelled because of turmoil in Afghanistan, a source said.

He has also started to engage with Rutte, who has successfully united a group of fiscally conservative countries known as "the Frugals".

Macron once told Rutte "you are becoming more like us, and we are becoming more like you", a diplomat familiar with the exchange said.

All five senior diplomats Reuters spoke to said many EU countries were now coming round to Macron's ideas. Capitals that once saw talk of protecting European companies from Asian or American rivals as French fads are now less reluctant, after Beijing and Washington adopted more aggressive policies.

"He seemed a bit radical but we discovered some of the things he pushed for were quite sensible," a diplomat from a Baltic country said.

Brexit too has shifted the dynamics within the bloc as France prepares to take up the rotating presidency of the EU in January.

"We used to be able to hide behind the British, but we lost a big back to hide behind," the diplomat said. "So we are starting to reach out."

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