US-French spat seems to simmer down after Biden-Macron call

In this June 14, 2021 file photo, U.S. President Joe Biden, right, speaks with French President Emmanuel Macron during a plenary session during a NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels. (AP)
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Updated 23 September 2021

US-French spat seems to simmer down after Biden-Macron call

  • Biden and Macron agreed “that the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners”

PARIS: The most significant rift in decades between the United States and France seemed on the mend Wednesday after French President Emmanuel Macron and President Joe Biden got on the phone to smooth things over.
In a half-hour call that the White House described as “friendly,” the two leaders agreed to meet next month to discuss the way forward after the French fiercely objected when the US, Australia and Britain announced a new Indo-Pacific defense deal last week that cost the French a submarine contract worth billions.
The White House made a point of releasing a photograph of Biden smiling during his call with Macron.
In a carefully crafted joint statement, the two governments said Biden and Macron “have decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence.”
So did Biden apologize?
White House press secretary Jen Psaki sidestepped the question repeatedly, allowing that Biden did acknowledge “there could have been greater consultation.”
“The president is hopeful this is a step in returning to normal in a long, important, abiding relationship that the United States has with France,” she said.
The call suggested a cooling of tempers after days of outrage from Paris directed at the Biden administration.
In an unprecedented move, France last week recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia to protest what the French said amounted to a stab in the back by allies. As part of the defense pact, Australia will cancel a multibillion-dollar contract to buy diesel-electric French submarines and acquire US nuclear-powered vessels instead.
It was clear there is still repair work to be done.
The joint statement said the French ambassador will “have intensive work with senior US officials” upon his return to the United States.
Biden and Macron agreed “that the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners,” the statement said.
Biden reaffirmed in the statement “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during a visit to Washington, didn’t mince words in suggesting it was time for France to move past its anger over the submarine deal, saying French officials should “get a grip.” Using both French and English words, he added they should give him a “break.”
Johnson said the deal was “fundamentally a great step forward for global security. It’s three very like-minded allies standing shoulder-to-shoulder, creating a new partnership for the sharing of technology.”
“It’s not exclusive. It’s not trying to shoulder anybody out. It’s not adversarial toward China, for instance.”
Psaki declined to weigh in on whether Johnson’s comments were constructive at a moment when the US was trying to mend relations with France.
The European Union last week unveiled its own new strategy for boosting economic, political and defense ties in the vast area stretching from India and China through Japan to Southeast Asia and eastward past New Zealand to the Pacific.
The United States also “recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO,” the statement said.
No decision has been made about the French ambassador to Australia, the Elysee said, adding that no phone call with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was scheduled.
Earlier Wednesday, Macron’s office had said the French president was expecting “clarifications and clear commitments” from Biden, who had requested the call.
French officials described last week’s US-UK-Australia announcement as creating a “crisis of trust,” with Macron being formally notified only a few hours beforehand. The move had prompted fury in Paris, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian calling it a “stab in the back.”
France’s European Union partners agreed Tuesday to put the dispute at the top of the bloc’s political agenda, including at an EU summit next month.
Following the Macron-Biden call, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in New York with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell as the administration worked to repair the damage done to broader EU-US relations by the deal.
Blinken spoke of the need for trans-Atlantic cooperation on any number issues “quite literally around the world, to include of course Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific and Europe and beyond.”
Borrell, taking note of the phone call, said he hoped to be able to “build a stronger confidence among us following the conversation that had been taking place this morning between President Biden and President Macron. I’m sure we’ll be working together.”
The French presidency categorically denied a report by Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper published on Wednesday saying Macron could offer the country’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council to the European Union if the bloc backs his plans on EU defense.
Psaki echoed Johnson’s point that the creation of the new security alliance — which has been dubbed AUKUS — wasn’t meant to freeze out other allies on Indo-Pacific strategy.
“During the conversation, the president reaffirmed the strategic importance of France — French and European nations I should say — in the Indo-Pacific region,” Psaki said.
The deal has widely been seen as part of American efforts to counter a more assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.


Singapore welcomes more travelers under quarantine-free program

Updated 2 sec ago

Singapore welcomes more travelers under quarantine-free program

SINGAPORE: Singapore welcomed on Wednesday the first travelers under an expanded quarantine-free program, marking a big step toward the aviation hub restoring its international links, despite a sharp rise in its COVID-19 cases.
Singapore Airlines flights from Amsterdam and London arrived on Wednesday under the so-called vaccinated travel lanes (VTL).
“Yeah, that’s (a) perfect visit. It’s really convenient,” said Singapore resident Andrea Mullens, who returned from the Netherlands with her daughter, who will return to school in Singapore.
“It’s a good thing happening. I think travel in general is a bit challenging at the moment.”
Husband Harald said he would return to the Netherlands next week on business.
“I do appreciate that family can travel again,” he said.
From this week, the lanes will be extended to vaccinated arrivals from Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Britain and the United States, who can enter Singapore without quarantine if they pass COVID-19 tests.
Singapore earlier opened the lane to arrivals from Germany and Brunei and will include South Korea from mid-November.
While Singapore is opening further, a recent rise in cases has prompted tighter measures locally, including limiting social gatherings to two people and only allowing vaccinated people to enter malls.
Mask-wearing is also mandatory, with some violators fined or even jailed for breaching COVID-19 regulations.
On Monday, the United States advised citizens against travel to Singapore, raising its alert for the city-state to its highest risk level.
Singapore saw a record 3,994 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, having recorded more than 3,000 daily infections in recent days. Most are asymptomatic or mild, with over 80 percent of the 5.45 million population vaccinated.
Singapore had, until recently, kept the virus largely under control through border closures and strict contact-tracing and quarantining.

Taliban agree to new polio vaccination drive across Afghanistan — WHO

Updated 20 October 2021

Taliban agree to new polio vaccination drive across Afghanistan — WHO

  • In the past Taliban barred UN-organized teams from campaigns out of suspicion they could be spies 
  • Some 3.3 million children over the past three years have not been vaccinated

ISTANBUL: UN agencies are gearing up to vaccinate all of Afghanistan’s children under 5 against polio for the first time since 2018, after the Taliban agreed to the campaign, the World Health Organization says.
For the past three years, the Taliban barred UN-organized vaccination teams from doing door-to-door campaigns in parts of Afghanistan under their control, apparently out of suspicion they could be spies for the government or the West. Because of the ban and ongoing fighting, some 3.3 million children over the past three years have not been vaccinated.
The Taliban’s reported agreement now, after becoming the rulers of Afghanistan, appeared aimed at showing they are willing to cooperate with international agencies. The longtime militant insurgent force has been trying to win the world’s recognition of its new government and re-open the door for international aid to rescue the crumbling economy.
Taliban officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But WHO and the UN children’s agency UNICEF said in a statement they welcomed the decision by the Taliban leadership supporting the resumption of house-to-house polio vaccinations across the country.
Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the only countries in the world where polio remains endemic. The disease can cause partial paralysis in children. Since 2010, the country has been carrying out regular inoculation campaigns in which workers go door to door, giving the vaccine to children. Most of the workers are women, since they can get better access to mothers and children.
But large sections of the country have been out of their reach in recent years. In parts of the south, particularly, the ban by the Taliban was in effect. In other areas, door-to-door campaigns were impossible because of fighting between the government and the insurgents, or because of fears of kidnappings or roadside bombs. In some places, hard-line clerics spoke out against vaccinations, calling them un-Islamic or a Western plot.
WHO said a new nationwide vaccination campaign will begin on November 8, followed by another synchronized with Pakistan’s polio vaccination campaign in December.
The estimated target population is Afghanistan’s 10 million children under five, including the more than 3.3 million who could not be reached since 2018, Dr. Hamid Jafari, WHO’s director of polio eradication for the Eastern Mediterranean region, told The Associated Press.
“Restarting polio vaccination in all areas of Afghanistan now will prevent a major resurgence of polio outbreaks within the country and ensure there is no international spread,” Jafari said.
“This is an extremely important step in the right direction,” said Dapeng Luo, WHO Representative in Afghanistan. He said it was a good sign that multiple campaigns are planned. “Sustained access to all children is essential to end polio for good.”
Jafari said the Taliban government had agreed on three key aspects — security for health workers and vaccinators, mobilization of health authorities and the new leadership for the campaign, and communications through religious, tribal and community leaders and media to build trust in the campaign.
He urged families not to be suspicious of the vaccinators going house to house, saying the only intention is to protect children. “They should trust the program. They should trust the vaccine.”
On March 30, three women were gunned down in two separate attacks as they carried out door-to-door vaccinations in the eastern city of Jalalabad. It was the first time vaccination workers have been killed in a decade of door-to-door inoculations against the disease in Afghanistan.
Such attacks have been more common in Pakistan, where at least 70 vaccinators and security personnel connected to vaccination campaigns have been killed since 2011.


Grenade attack targets Taliban vehicle in Kabul

Updated 20 October 2021

Grenade attack targets Taliban vehicle in Kabul

  • Explosion happened during rush hour in the Deh Mazang district in the west of the capital

KABUL: A grenade was thrown at a Taliban vehicle in the Afghan capital on Wednesday morning, wounding two fighters and four nearby school children, government officials said.
“This morning a grenade was thrown at a mujahideen vehicle in Deh Mazang, wounding two mujahideen,” Taliban interior ministry spokesman Qari Sayed Khosti said.
Another official said: “Our initial information shows four school students wounded.”
The explosion happened just before 8 a.m. (0330 GMT) during rush hour in the Deh Mazang district in the west of the capital, a witness said.
“I was on my way to work, it was 7.55am and I heard this very big explosion on the road. I managed to escape,” said Amin Amani.
“I saw a lot of smoke in the mirror of the car and I saw people running,” the 35-year-old translator said.
Images shared on social media showed plumes of smoke and dust rising into the air on the streets of the capital.


85 dead in India floods, 31 in Nepal

Updated 20 October 2021

85 dead in India floods, 31 in Nepal

  • In Uttarakhand in northern India officials said that 46 people had died in recent days with 11 missing
  • In Kerala in the south chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that the death toll had hit 39 there

NEW DELHI: The death toll from floods and landslides in India rose to 85 on Wednesday, officials said, while Nepal also reported 31 fatalities and 43 missing.
In Uttarakhand in northern India officials said that 46 people had died in recent days with 11 missing. In Kerala in the south chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that the death toll had hit 39 there.
In Nepal, disasters management division official Humkala Pandey said: “In the last three days, there have been 31 deaths from floods and landslides triggered by heavy post-monsoon rainfalls across the country. Forty-three people are missing.”


Mali asks Islamic High Council to begin dialogue with Al-Qaeda

Updated 20 October 2021

Mali asks Islamic High Council to begin dialogue with Al-Qaeda

  • It is not clear when the dialogue will begin, but the council will lead discussions with Malian militant leaders

BAMAKO: Mali’s government has asked the country’s Islamic High Council to begin a dialogue with Al-Qaeda-linked groups in a new effort to address a nearly decade-long insecurity crisis.

It is not clear when the dialogue will begin, but the council will lead discussions with Malian militant leaders Iyad Ag Ghaly and Amadou Kouffa of the Al-Qaeda-linked group known as JNIM, the council said.

Mohamed Kibiri, spokesman for the council, said on Tuesday that he was asked by the government last week to launch discussions. He said they are working with their representatives in the country’s north.

“The only directive we have received is to negotiate only with the Malians,” he said. “The other jihadists we consider invaders.”

Mali’s Minister of Religious Affairs and Worship Mamadou Koné confirmed that the government asked the council to lead discussions with the two groups.

This is not the first time the Malian government has asked the council to open dialogue with jihadist groups. Earlier this year, the council reached a ceasefire agreement between an Al-Qaeda-linked group and local fighters in a village in the Niono circle in central Mali. The jihadists granted freedom of movement to the villagers, and peaceful cohabitation with the army and local armed groups, in exchange for compulsory veiling of women, collection of taxes and traditional justice.

Mali has been fighting growing insecurity since 2012, when Al-Qaeda-linked groups took over parts of the north. Despite a French-led military operation that forced many rebels from their northern strongholds in 2013, insurgents quickly regrouped and have been advancing year after year toward the south of the country, where the Malian capital is located.

Meanwhile, the French army said Tuesday its troops shot dead a woman while conducting an anti-terror reconnaissance operation with Malian soldiers in the west African country, prompting an investigation.

The woman died on Monday during a joint patrol “in an area where elements of an armed terrorist group has been detected east of Gossi” in the north, the French general staff said.

The soldiers saw two individuals riding a motorbike, but they left it behind to flee into the undergrowth when they spotted the French and Malian troops, said the statement.

“An abandoned assault rifle, ammunition and a military bag are discovered near the motorbike,” it added.

The soldiers “engage in the pursuit of one of the two individuals in the woods. Four warning shots are fired to stop him but the latter moves further away.”

“The individual turns sharply toward the soldiers who fire to neutralize” the target and then “discover that it is a woman,” suspected of being one of the people on the motorcycle.

“Residents of the nearest village are called to give the identity of this person” but “no one knows her,” said the general staff, adding that the body was buried at the site.

An investigation has been opened “to clarify the exact sequence of events and to shed full light on this combat action,” the statement concluded.

Deployed to Mali since 2013 because of deadly jihadist activity, a force of some 5,000 French troops is now being drawn down, potentially by as much as half by early next year.