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Biden Meets with French President After Major Diplomatic Clash. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired October 29, 2021 - 11:30   ET


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: French policies in terms of what they want to pursue, counterterrorism-wise, in the Sahel Region in Africa, collective defenses, generally.


All of those are very real issues. And I think French officials, according to diplomats that I've spoken with, very much don't just want to shake hands, they don't just want to have a friendly conversation. They want deliverables. They want concrete things out of the U.S. delegation in this meeting.

And as your panel was talking about, the U.S. has made an extensive effort behind the scenes over the course of the last couple weeks to address those concerns to maybe set the groundwork for delivering on some of those issues, whether it was the secretary of state, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, obviously the vice president will be heading to Paris next month. Those conversations are incredibly important to basically set the parameters for what this meeting will entail.

But besides just how the two leaders shake hands with one another or how they look, body language-wise, as they're sitting or standing next to each other, it's what comes out of this meeting. You mentioned the communique, what the U.S. offers or is willing to provide to the French given their concerns over the course of the last several months will, by far, be the most interesting takeaway and probably the most substantive takeaway from this bilateral meeting that had been long awaited over the course of the last several weeks, Kate.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN AT THIS HOUR: Let's stick with this control room because I lost Phil for just a second. I don't know if we had lost his audio or if it was just mine. I just want to flagging that for the control room.

But, Phil, on a basic level when it comes to these very important meetings of world leaders, there is this strategic nature and the necessary strategic relationship between longtime allies, and there's also the personality. And you can't -- there really can't be more of a contrast between the Biden personality when it comes to his approach to allies than his predecessor, with Donald Trump.

And I'm curious as to what you're hearing or think maybe is taking more importance now in the relationship between Biden and Macron. They clearly have a longstanding relationship, but is it the personal relationship that you think is the focus here or is it because of the recent past, is it the strategic relationship and where that stands?

MATTINGLY: You know, I don't think they're mutually exclusive necessarily, Kate. But I do think when you talk to White House officials, they feel like the president's focus on the personal is an asset, and an unquestionable asset in these moments, particularly given the fact we saw weeks of basically public comments being thrown back and forth like bombs more from their end to the United States than the other.

And I think the other thing that matters here too is the United States -- the officials I have spoken to in the administration don't believe they made a mistake in terms of the AUKUS agreement, don't believe they made a mistake in terms of supporting the Australians and basically dropping their submarine contracts with the French and moving towards nuclear submarines. They believe that that was the right move strategically, geopolitically, given the focus, very clear focus in the administration on China and trying to elevate that issue in the region and basically better defend regional actors. There's no regret there.

And I think when the personal comes in, it's underscoring the point that they don't necessarily think it was a mistake, the action. However, the personal aspects leading up to that action in terms of diplomatically keeping people informed, keeping people on the loop, trying to lay the groundwork for what was coming given the relationship, the longstanding relationship, absolutely could have been better when you talk to officials. And that is something that I think the president in a very personal manner can address.

He has addressed it in multiple -- two calls over the course of the last couple of months. That's why you've seen such an emphasis from U.S. officials being there in person in Paris over the course of the last several weeks. But that's where the personal matters more than anything.

I think when it comes to the substance and policy, the French have made very clear, they have questions about the U.S. because four years prior to President Biden, they have questions about the U.S. focus, overriding focus on China and where that leaves Europe. They have questions about collective defense. And, obviously, they have asked very clearly for more counterterrorism assistance in Africa. Those are things that the United States could potentially put on the table as they seek to mend the rift between the two countries. It's definitely a possibility. It's been part of discussions, I've been told. So, on the substantive side of things, that will be the thing to keep an eye on coming out of this meeting in the next couple hours.

BOLDUAN: Yes, absolutely. And it looks like, as Phil has been talking, we're seeing more people kind of gathering. It looks like the arrival of President Biden could be soon.

Phil, if you could, stick with me, I want to bring back in Kaitlan Collins and Wolf Blitzer as well.

Kaitlan, you were talking about, and if you could, again, why it is significant that this is being held at the French embassy in Rome?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's very significant because not only are they hosting it, they have organized this, that's a big concession, typically. It may not be something that most people think of when they think of these two sit-downs with world leaders have pull aside (ph), but it is significant. It is a concession by the White House to let the French really organize this and host this given typically these are neutral meetings between the two sides on the sidelines of a big summit like this one where so many world leaders are present.

But this was intentional, I am told, and it is also intentional that it's being held at the French embassy in Rome and not a hotel or some other site, where typically a meeting like this would happen. And that's because, of course, the White House is kind of deferring to the French here as part of that effort to try to rebuild and restore this relationship back to where it was.

And, remember, when this happened, you saw the French so angry that they were seething over this. It wasn't just that they brought their ambassador back to France because they were so angry about the deal, they also were comparing Biden to his predecessor, to Trump, to, of course, not only the person he has painted this stark picture against saying he is not like Trump, of course, but they were saying that he was adopting these kind of tactics and just dropping something on them and not letting them know and not having a clear line of communication.

And we're told that that really bothered President Biden, that comparison from the French. But it speaks to the level of severity that they viewed what the U.S. actions were when it came to this.

BOLDUAN: Wolf, I'm wondering as we're talking about this, and this is, of course, part of the backdrop against which they're going to be meeting and really what seems a few minutes, but the cameras will go in to see the handshake and then they'll go into their close-door real session, real meeting. What do you think the chances that there's not even a whiff or a mention of any tension between the world leaders? I feel like there's a decent chance that while this is lingering in the background, they don't mention it at all.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, I don't know what they're going to do publicly, but, privately, they're obviously going to talk about it. And one thing that to me, as someone who has covered U.S./French relations for many years, was how the U.S. side from the president, who's got an enormous amount of foreign policy experience, to the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, an enormous amount of foreign policy experience, especially with France, he grew up in Paris, speaks French, Jake Sullivan, who knows U.S. foreign policy, how they so badly miscalculated on this issue keeping France in the dark on a very sensitive issue.

France is a close U.S. ally, as they said, the longest U.S. ally going back to the revolutionary war. The fact that they miscalculated and the president himself was surprised, and I think Kaitlan will agree, how much this ruptured the relationship given that the enormous experience they all had, they didn't do it right and they acknowledge that now and they're trying to fix it. We'll see what diplomacy does right now and we'll see what the statement is. I'm sure they'll say it was fruitful and productive and all of that, but they always say that. Let's see what's going on behind the scenes.

COLLINS: And, Kate, we should note when this happened --

BOLDUAN: Don't forget constructive. That's always there too. Go ahead, Kaitlan, sorry.

COLLINS: Yes, constructive. There's all that diplomatic speak. You can often read between the lines though and see how the meetings went. But when this happened, the White House was asked if Biden had apologized for it, because there were those two subsequent calls between the two leaders after this trying to mend those because they were seeing these public statements coming out from the French that were incredibly fiery about their feelings on this. They did not try to hide it at all. And they did not say that the president apologized. But Jen Psaki, the press secretary, did say that they acknowledge there could have been greater consultation between the U.S. and France on this issue.

That in and of itself maybe doesn't sound like an apology, but when you talk about the diplomatic speak here is, that is something that you don't normally see between two nations. And so, yes, they're saying that they still believe the essence of this deal, which they think will greater -- help greater deter China when it comes to Australia, they think they will help, but the way it was handled, of course, is something that they are going to have to defend and maybe not publicly. Maybe it won't happen in front of the cameras. But it will be interesting to see how warm and cheery this relationship and this interaction that we do see is compared to that last one we saw at the G7 summit.

BLITZER: And I'll just add at this point, Kate, that when it comes to China, yes, there was irritation on the part of French and other European allies as far as the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Yes, the submarine deal caused a lot of pain in the U.S./French relationship. But right now, there's a lot of difference in the way the U.S. is dealing with China and the European allies, especially France and Germany for that matter. They want to have this economic relationship with China, and there's a serious issue and a strain of sorts, and I'm sure that issue will come up in this meeting between President Macron and President Biden as well, China, China, China.

Right now, it's really important, especially when you see the tensions going on involving Taiwan. There's a lot of concern the Europeans have, the U.S. have, and they want to get their act together.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Please stick with us, everyone. Wolf, Kaitlan, and Phil are standing by for this very important meeting, President Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, the first face-to-face meeting since this diplomatic rift that we've been discussing.

[11:40:02] We're going to take a quick break. More live coverage from Rome in just a second.


BOLDUAN: Let's head back to Rome right now as President Biden is arriving, as we speak. You see standing there, the French president. Let's listen in.

All right, there is the arrival of President Biden meeting with Emmanuel Macron as they head in for their meeting.

Can we go over to Phil Mattingly? Phil is ready because, hopefully, he could hear more than we could.

Phil, with the helicopters overhead, it was really hard for us to hear even what was asked and what the president -- how President Biden responded. But if you heard more, you tell me.


MATTINGLY: And I can tell you what was asked. We had not just the helicopters but the president's beast that's currently sitting right next to me, the car he travels in. He was asked if whether or not there's still breach in the relationship, if he felt the breach had been fixed with the relationship, what the state of the relationship currently is. It didn't appear that he could hear us or if he could.

At one point, keep in mind, Kate, that some of us are on this side of a group of hedges and some of us, the U.S. pool, the press pool that travels with the president, is about 15 feet away and they were asking questions as well. It appeared that he was asked something about the pope. But he couldn't hear and eventually President Macron decided to bring him inside.

We do expect that the two leaders may have once again be in front of cameras in a short time, where they'll be in closer proximity to maybe hear more and let them expound a little bit in terms on the relationship and perhaps what they're looking for in this meeting, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely, Phil. Wolf and Kaitlan, let me bring you in as well. Just the body language matters and how leaders approach each other here. What do you see, Wolf?

BLITZER: I saw two leaders smiling. I saw Macron putting his arm around the president of the United States, reminding me of when he put his arm around the president of the United States back in June in the U.K. during that G7 summit. So, at least on the surface, it looked like business as usual, getting back to normal. Let's see what happens behind closed doors.

But -- and, Kaitlan, I don't know if you agree, but it looked pretty good, at least that welcome at the French embassy by the French president. COLLINS: Yes, smiles and handshakes. And, of course, we weren't expecting President Biden to show up and get the cold shoulder from the French president. The devil is many the details and how do they interact sitting down and answering questions. And, obviously, the French have been pretty blunt about how they felt about this, but officials have also said that they are seeking to move on from it.

And I think that is really going to be the president's strategy as they go into this meeting, because they have a lot of other issues to also talk about. This isn't the only one, though it may be obviously the latest issue for the French. It's not always the top priority. They have a lot of things to discuss. They have a lot of things that are important to the French. And they may try to use this moment to their advantage. They want explicit American support for European defense.

And, as you know, France is trying to establish itself and also maybe potentially develop further intelligence-sharing capabilities, that kind of nature, that could be something you could see come out of this. So, it may be it may be something like that and not necessarily, of course, the in-person interactions where they did seem very warm there. You saw the French president --

BOLDUAN: Kaitlan, I'm going to jump in real quick as we're just now getting live pictures as the pool is heading in. Let's listen and see what we can hear.

EMMANUEL MACRON, FRENCH PRESIDENT: Tell us when you're ready.


MACRON: Okay. Hello, everybody.

Over the past few weeks and what we'll be talking about today, first and foremost, enables to clarify and that was much needed, what is European's sovereignty and European defense in itself, what it brings to -- strategic partnership between NATO and the European Union. We're both members of NATO, of course.

We want to underscore the importance of the cooperation in the Indo- Pacific Region and the willingness to cooperate in this region.

Thirdly, and with respect, I would very much would like to thank President Biden for the decisions he (INAUDIBLE). It is about coordination in the fight against terrorism, and in particular the presence of France into Sahel together with our European and international partners. And over the past few weeks, President Biden took some fundamental decisions, which benefited to our armies, and these are very much the -- this is the embodiment of the support he expressed.

Then we acknowledged some bilateral agreements on armament exportations, nuclear sector, the space industry, and, of course, the most advanced technology.

[11:50:06] And we want to have some expanded (ph) cooperation on regulations as well. And then we will continue to work together on the main international issues, climate change, the digital sector, health, which will be on the agenda of this G20 and we will also upgrade our discussions on the arms control, which remains a key issue.

In a few words, this is what was at the heart of our work over the past few weeks, but we will be discussing today these very concrete decisions that are being taken to support some initiatives, some joint initiatives, joint actions on all of these matters. And, for me, this is very much the beginning of the process of trust of confidence which we're building together. Thank you very much for the work undertaken over the past few weeks and for your presence here today.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: We have no older and no more loyal ally than France. They have been with us from the beginning, in reason in part why we came. As a matter of fact, we're trying to run this down, but my father always told me that I have a little medallion (INAUDIBLE) and some of our relatives came with Lafayette. And so, all kidding aside, strong affection and loyalty and there is no place in the world where we can't work together. France is (INAUDIBLE) part of the world. Our attitude to what happens in other areas in our partnership, in Afghanistan today.

And so I want to get something clear (INAUDIBLE).

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

REPORTER: Is the relationship repaired?

BIDEN: You're asking me? My answer is I think what happened was -- to use an English phrase, what we did was clumsy, that was not done with a lot of grace. I remember things that happened that hadn't happened. But I want to be clear France can be an extremely, extremely valuable partner and a (INAUDIBLE) on itself. So, I don't know any reason -- we're in the same values together.

REPORTER: What do you think happened that cannot happen?

BIDEN: I was under the impression that France had been informed long before (INAUDIBLE). Honest to God, I did not know that. But having said that, well, there's too much we have done together, suffered together, celebrated together and battled together for anything (INAUDIBLE).

And we're at one of those infliction points in the world history. Things will change (INAUDIBLE). And it happens every 15 to 75 years. It's happening. I want to be in the same ward.

Thank you.

MACRON: I think we clarified together what we had to clarify. He U.S. was not (INAUDIBLE), only one (INAUDIBLE) at stake, as the president does say.

[11:55:06] And now what's important is precisely to be sure that such a situation will not be possible for our future, stronger, coordination, stronger cooperation. And for me, what's important is that we built in these past week some very concrete actions in order to strengthen the partnership with the help, clarification between what the European defense means and the how this is compatible with NATO, what European sovereignty means and how it's important for global security and just for me important clarification. Plus, we announced a series of cooperation that I mentioned. So only what really matters now is what we will do together in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years.

BOLDUAN: All right. So, there's quite a bit that we just heard from President Biden and the French president there. Yes, some audio issues. We're going to piece through it together. There is always a re-feed so the audio will likely become more clear as there is a re- feed.

But from just what we heard, let me bring in Wolf Blitzer, Kaitlan Collins back with me.

Wolf, your first impressions of what you heard there in that important meeting? They addressed it had head on, this rift.

BLITZER: Yes, they certainly did. And they knew the reporters would be shouting questions about it during this photo opportunity over at the French embassy here and in Rome. And they responded, look, they are trying to patch things up. As the president said, this is the oldest alliance the United States has. France is America's oldest allies and the two countries have gone through a lot over all of these centuries, and there's no doubt about that.

There was a serious problem. They are now trying to fix it. They've got a lot of work to do. And I think, substantively in this private meet, Kaitlan, and I think you agree, they are going to have serious heart-to-heart discussions. And I think France still wants a good explanation why France was kept in the dark on this sensitive deal that the U.S. making nuclear-powered submarines available to Australia and then in the process killing, for all practical purposes, tens of billions of dollars in a French diesel-powered submarine deal that was already in the works with Australia.

COLLINS: Yes, Kate. And it's so notable to hear how candid the president was there, given how his aides have handled this and what they have said, as I was saying earlier, talking about the diplomatic speak that they sometimes use, saying greater consultation could have happened. The president there said this was handled clumsily. He said it was unfortunate how this happened. And he said that France is a valuable partner to the United States, of course, something he reiterated in that sentiment several times.

But also, Kate, he said something that was really surprising to me. He followed up on a sentiment that we had heard previously, which is that he said, he thought France was better informed of what was happening with that submarine deal between the United States and Australia and the United Kingdom than they were. Of course, that's what infuriated them so much. It's not just that they lost out on this deal. As Wolf noted, it was worth tens of billions of dollars. But it was the consultation and the way it went down and the lack of communication the French said about what was happening. And the president said there he thought France was better aware of what was actually happening.

And so that's going to raise some questions, of course, you know, who was responsible for communicating that better to France, and so the president admitting there that that should have been handled better. It's quite something, but also how the French president responded. He was talking about it as well. But he said what's important to him now is what happens in the future, of course, the future of the relationship between Biden and Macron and, of course, the U.S. and France here.

But quite a notable candid moment, you don't often see moments like that so candid with world leaders. These are often very carefully scripted. They usually just make short remarks. You saw earlier the president only answered a few questions in some of those get-togethers with the Italian heads of state. But there with the French president, he was pretty blunt.

BLITZER: And there's no doubt, Kate, that so much of what has been over these past few years on France's wish police about to be realized as a result of this U.S. blunder in miscommunicating or not communicating at all with America's closest ally about this nuclear- powered submarine deal.

BOLDUAN: And the way the question was asked, is the relationship repaired, and Biden's full answer was, my answer as I think what happened was to use an English phrase, what we did was clumsy, not done with a lot of grace. That's getting to exactly what you were talking about, Kaitlan, and how candid it really was.

And it was interesting, as Macron also said, this is the beginning of the process of trust of confidence which we're building together, noting that trust was broken, but that they clearly are looking forward now.


Wolf, Kaitlan, thank you both so much for walking through with us.

Now, they go in a closed-door meeting. There will be much more to come out of this.