ROME U.S. President Joe Biden said his government's handling of a security agreement with Australia and Britain had been "clumsy" and sought to turn the page during his first meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron since a diplomatic crisis last month between Washington and its oldest ally.
The two leaders shared warm words, and friendly body language, but Macron said later that France's trust needed to be regained by deeds, not words.
The relationship came under strain over the U.S.-Australia security alliance, known as AUKUS, which also includes the United Kingdom. It included a submarine sale agreement with Australia that effectively canceled a 2016 Australian-French submarine deal.
The U.S. decision to secretly negotiate drew outrage from Paris. France temporarily recalled its ambassador from Washington, canceled a gala in the U.S. capital and officials accused Biden of acting like former President Donald Trump.
"I think what happened was, to use an English phrase, what we did was clumsy. It was not done with a lot of grace," Biden said. "I was under the impression certain things had happened that hadn't happened. And - but I want to make it clear: France is an extremely, extremely valued partner - extremely - and a power in and of itself."
Biden also noted the United States does not have an older and more loyal ally than France and said there is no place where the two nations cannot cooperate.
"I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not going through. I, honest to God, did not know you had not been," Biden told Macron.
Macron said his meeting with Biden was "important" and that it was essential to "look to the future" as his country and the United States work to mend fences.
Biden and Macron showed warm body language, with clasped hands and arms on each others' backs when they greeted one another. They shook hands a few times while journalists watched the beginning of their meeting.
"What really matters now is what we will do together in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years," Macron said.
'PROOF IS BETTER'
Macron told reporters afterward that the meeting with Biden had been helpful, with a "strong" U.S. commitment about European defense, but what happened next was important.
"Trust is like love: Declarations are good, but proof is better," Macron said.
A senior U.S. administration official said after the meeting that the two sides were "moving forward" in their relationship and, after difficult conversations in September and October, talks were now more engaging.
Biden and Macron had a discussion about the rise of China and the questions that poses for democracies and market economies, the official said. They also discussed Iran, supply chains, steel and aluminum tariffs and trade.
The two nations issued a lengthy joint statement after the meeting painting themselves as global democratic partners in the fight against a range of challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis and ensuring the "indivisible security" of the NATO alliance.
Washington has taken several steps to fix the relationship with Paris since the rift last month.
Biden and Macron spoke to each other last week. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also visited Paris, where he acknowledged the United States could have "communicated better." Vice President Kamala Harris also announced that she would travel to Paris in November and meet with Macron.
Biden and Macron met at the Villa Bonaparte, the French embassy to the Vatican, which a French diplomat said was a significant mark of goodwill from Biden.
"It's an important gesture," the French diplomat said, adding that the United States recognized that it had underestimated the impact of its actions.
France now wants to see if Biden follows his words with actions. "Trust is being rebuilt. This is one step. Tokens of goodwill were given, we'll see whether they follow through over the long term," the diplomat said.
Biden and Macron are in Rome for the Group of 20 summit of world leaders, which opens on Saturday.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Michel Rose in Rome, Writing by Nandita Bose and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Editing by Franklin Paul, Heather Timmons, David Gregorio, Marguerita Choy and Daniel Wallis) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +12023545868; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com))