Things were set to get awkward at the G20 summit in Rome on Friday as President Joe Biden and France's Emmanuel Macron held their first face-to-face meeting since last month's AUKUS security pact between the US, Australia and the UK was unveiled - which effectively overnight cut Paris out of a multi-billion dollar submarine deal with Canberra.
Sitting alongside Macron at the French Embassy to the Vatican, Biden conceded that the US had acted in a "clumsy" manner and attempted to assure France of the administration's loyalty as a key ally. Perhaps taking the easy way out and playing the part of the 'forgetful old man' (convenient for the White House at this moment) - Biden feigned ignorance, telling Macron after the prior fiery French denunciations that he was personally "under the impression that France had been informed long before that the [French-Australian sub] deal would not go through."
"I, honest to God, did not know you had not been," Biden insisted to the French leader. It's not the first time the White House gave what essentially is a hands in the air "but we didn't know" response - though crucially nothing of the AUKUS deal is set to change, including France being left out in the cold on the sub deal. Instead the United States will now provide nuclear sub technology to Australia's military.
Also missing was a direct apology by Biden, which angry French officials have been seeking, according to a description of Biden and Macron's initially greeting each other and the ensuing meeting:
Biden and Macron greeted each other with handshakes and shoulder-grabs before their meeting. Biden did not formally apologize to Macron, but conceded the US should not have caught its oldest ally by surprise with the Australian deal.
"I think, what happened was to use an English phrase, what we did was clumsy," Biden said, adding the submarine deal "was not done with a lot of grace"..
"I was under the impression that certain things had happened that hadn’t happened," Biden claimed. "I was under the impression that France had been informed long before."
"I honest to God did not know you had not been," Biden insisted.
Biden later emphasized that "there is no place in the world where we can't work together," and described optimistically that "we have no older, more loyal and decent ally than France."
"I want to make it clear, France is an extremely, extremely valued partner — extremely. It is a power in and of itself," Biden said.
Macron it seems was content to accept the perhaps 'half apology' - later telling reporters of the Biden meeting that "we clarified together what we had to clarify" and "now what’s important is to be sure that such a situation will not be possible for our future … This is an extremely important clarification." Or rather it seems France - in the end holding no cards - has little choice but to take whatever explanation the US gives, while trying to save face as it quietly licks its wounds in humiliation.