PARIS: President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday held talks with visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his first meeting with an American official since the scrapping of a submarine contract with Australia plunged relations into crisis.
Blinken, who has been seeking to patch up ties with France after Canberra ditched the deal as part of a security pact with the UK and US, did not originally have an appointment with Macron on the agenda for his two-day visit to Paris.
The one-on-one meeting lasted around 40 minutes with "common agreement that we have an opportunity now to deepen and strengthen the coordination" even though "a lot of hard work remains to be done", a senior State Department official told reporters in Paris.
The Elysee also confirmed the meeting with Macron, saying Blinken's visit would contribute to "restoring confidence" between the sides.
Macron was furious last month when Australia scrapped a multibillion-dollar deal for French submarines, saying it would pursue US nuclear versions instead.
His government called secret talks leading up to the cancellation "a stab in the back" and the French president recalled his ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.
US President Joe Biden has since tried to make amends, with Karen Donfried, the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, admitting last week that "the September 15 announcement would have benefited from better and more open consultation among allies".
Blinken earlier Tuesday met French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian for an hour in what Le Drian's spokeswoman had flagged as a chance to "identify stages that may allow a return of confidence between our two countries".
He then drove to the Elysee Palace for a scheduled meeting with Macron's security advisor Emmanuel Bonne, but "then had a one-on-one with President Macron for probably about 30 or 40 minutes", the State Department official said.
The mood of the encounter was "serious", the official said. "I don't want to characterise their emotions, but I would say, at least in the discussions we had, it was very cordial and amicable."
A French diplomatic source, who asked not to be named, said that the talks had shown that the American side was aware of the gravity of the situation.
"This was not hours of cuddling to make things better and the Americans also don't think that cuddling is the right thing now or saying that 'we are the best allies in the world'," said the source.
- 'Not only in words' -
Blinken's trip to Paris had been scheduled before the submarines row erupted, and was to focus on a meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a club of mostly rich countries.
The fallout had been expected to hang over his two-day stay, with the US recognising that repairing ties "will take time and will take hard work and it will need to be demonstrated not only in words but also in deeds".
But there were also signs that France had started softening its stance, after Biden spoke by telephone with Macron.
Following that conversation, the French leader sent his ambassador back to Washington where he was given meetings with Blinken and also with Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser.
Biden is now himself hoping to meet with Macron, according to US climate envoy John Kerry, also in Paris for the OECD meeting.
Kerry told the BFMTV broadcaster late Monday that Biden had asked his opinion about the submarines spat, and that the president had not been fully aware of its impact on France.
Macron is meanwhile still livid with Australia, and a long-planned round of Australia-EU free trade talks has been postponed by a month.
Canberra announced the submarine decision as it joined a new alliance with Britain and the United States, dubbed AUKUS, one of a series of initiatives by Biden who views countering China as the paramount concern of the United States.
While in Paris, Blinken will also co-chair a ministerial meeting for the 60th anniversary of the Paris-based OECD.
The meeting will look at promoting a green economy, a month before high-stakes UN climate talks in Glasgow.