PARIS — Sometimes lost in translation conveniently works well for allies when they are not always allied on every issue.
Thus is the case with France and the United States. Different agendas bring different variances to language that, if clear, could be disconcerting.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper came to Europe in large part to talk tough — with warnings about Russia, how to blunt its aggressiveness and forge a common front. That worked well in the United Kingdom but not so well in France. A high-level French delegation was planning to meet today in Russia to forge closer cooperation.
The Moscow trip was the first point raised by French defense minister Florence Parly in her remarks to reporters in the Salon Rochambeau following her weekend meeting with Esper. She outlined why the French thought it was critical to fly to Moscow and seek “une ouverture aux russes” — an opening to the Russians.
“It is important to talk to each other, to avoid misunderstanding and friction,” she said.
Esper listened and then went straight into prepared remarks headed by denunciations of Moscow and warning allies on the Russian threat. Parly gave him a chilly glance that needed no translation.
France’s relations with Moscow soured after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and boosted Russian-loyal separatists in Ukraine’s east. The European Union, the U.S. and other nations hit Russia with sanctions and Esper uses those two events — as well as the partial Russian invasion of Georgia and Moscow’s development of intermediate-range missiles — as reasons to go hard on Russia.
However, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who also met with Esper in Paris, told reporters Monday after his meetings in Moscow that the “time has come to reduce distrust” with Russia, according to news reports. He said a major prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine should open the door for better ties.
There was less overt disagreement over Iran, even though the French have declined to join a U.S.-led effort to establish an international fleet to provide protection to cargo ships in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz region. Only the U.K., Australia and Bahrain have joined.
Paris prefers to work its own track with Iran, with Parly saying her military would provide some vague cooperation to the Pentagon effort. France will “continuer à améliorer le dialogue avec l’Iran” — continue to improve dialogue with Iran — while it seeks to woo Iran away from continuing to develop nuclear capabilities, she said.
“The goal is to rally as many partners and means of surveillance as possible to improve security in the Gulf, and there’s absolutely no competition between these initiatives,” Parly said.
Esper said that the U.S. effort “is about deterring [Iran’s] bad behavior” and that “obviously our preference is that all countries join underneath this broader umbrella.”
U.S. officials said in interviews that France was taking the course as a way to have credibility with Iran in order to try and snare it back into the nuclear agreement that continues to unravel.
“I am confident in the strength of our partnership,” Esper after the meeting with Parly. “We discussed strategies to continue NATO mission in this era of Great Power Competition and to advance our common interests.”