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US-France row casts shadow over UNGA summit week

UNITED NATIONS: Tensions among Western allies cast a shadow over the start of the UN summit week on Monday with France furious over a scuppered mega-contract but US President Joe Biden addressing a European grievance by easing Covid travel restrictions.

Biden arrived in New York on Monday for his first UN General Assembly in hopes of turning the page on the turbulent presidency of Donald Trump and rallying allies in the face of a rising China.

He is also seeking to step up action on fighting the pandemic and climate change and to forge global unity on Afghanistan, where the Taliban swiftly took control after Biden withdrew US troops last month.

But tensions with France suddenly took centre stage after Australia last week canceled a multi-billion-dollar contract for French submarines, instead seeking US nuclear versions as part of a new three-way alliance with Washington and London.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has accused the United States of betrayal and Australia of back-stabbing and has no separate meeting scheduled yet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

In an interview, Le Drian said that “many European countries” have told France that they shared concerns although he did not name them and fellow EU power Germany has been publicly circumspect.

“This isn’t just a French-Australian matter but a breach of trust in alliances and on each ally’s place in the Indo-Pacific strategy,” Le Drian told the Ouest France newspaper.

US officials noted that Blinken will see Le Drian in a group setting on Wednesday during talks on Iran amid last-ditch efforts to salvage a 2015 nuclear accord.

Asked about a bilateral meeting, senior State Department official Erica Barks-Ruggles said that “the schedule will remain dynamic” and called France “our longest friend and partner.” Blinken will nonetheless meet his new British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and Biden will see Prime Minister Boris Johnson who came to push on climate change ahead of a UN conference in Glasgow in November.

French President Emmanuel Macron is among leaders who will not attend in person, mindful of UN recommendations to reduce Covid exposure.

US officials said Blinken, a fluent French speaker who grew up in Paris, sought to contain damage on Friday in a conversation with the French ambassador in Washington, Philippe Etienne, before he was recalled to Paris for consultations as a protest.

Officials said Blinken also passed along continued concerns by France and other allies over a ban on European travelers imposed at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a significant reversal, the Biden administration announced it would ease a Covid travel ban on all air passengers so long as they are fully vaccinated and undergo testing and contact tracing.

The European Union, eager to avoid a second summer without US tourists, had relaxed its own rules months ago and had been threatening to reimpose them, angry that the United States had not reciprocated.

Biden took office vowing to defeat the pandemic but has increasingly faced political pressure as sections of the American public stubbornly refuse vaccinations and as the Delta variant sends caseloads rising again.

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