The dining room of the French ambassador’s residence is one of the most beautiful places in Washington, D.C., a confection of frothed plaster overlooking a garden in the poodle-clipped style the French so love. Before COVID-19, the room was known for the discussion sessions held there, hosted by a gracious series of ambassadors. It’s been a long time since anyone was able to enjoy an in-person event at the residence. So when invitations arrived to celebrate Constitution Day, September 17, at the residence in a lunchtime discussion with a former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and an equally distinguished French judge, well, the RSVPs returned quickly.
The timing, however, was unfortunate, as it coincided with an angry upset in Franco-American relations. The United States had snatched a $90 billion submarine contract with Australia from French shipyards. To add (security policy) insult to the (lost jobs and revenues) injury, the redirected submarine contract would consolidate a new U.S.-U.K.-Australia naval defense agreement in the Indo-Pacific, an agreement into which France had not been invited.
Worse still, the French received word only hours before the public found out, reportedly because the Americans and the Australians each insisted that the other deliver the bad news.
The French administered a symbolic protest by canceling a gala event planned for Friday evening: a commemoration of the 240th anniversary of a naval battle that helped secure the American victory at Yorktown in 1781. But lunch? Attendees hastily confirmed: Lunch was safe. Or so it seemed.
The first hour of the lunch event harkened back to pre-COVID days. There was champagne in the foyer and courteous welcomes by embassy senior staff, all as it used to be. Guests took their seats. Opening remarks were elegantly spoken, all off the record, but so guarded and careful that there would be no news in them even without an agreement not to quote them. Steve Clemons, an editor at large at The Hill and the whiskey-smooth master of ceremonies, set the conversation in motion. But about 15 minutes in, Clemons was obliged to make a regretful announcement: The ambassador had a very important meeting and would be leaving immediately.
Somebody loudly asked, “Off to the State Department?”
Only later did we learn where the ambassador was heading: not to the State Department, not to the Pentagon, not to the White House, but upstairs to pack before flying to Paris for “consultations.”
Earlier in the meal, somebody had cracked a joke about U.S.-French relations—how they’d sunk so low that they were now underwater. The Americans laughed. The French did not.
But on the plus side: They did not shove us out on the sidewalk. A powerful symbolic message was sent. France is mad, but not so mad that we will deprive our American friends of lunch and dessert. (Crème brûlée, in case you were wondering, under crackling crusts individually crafted by a sous-chef with a miniature flamethrower.)
It’s like a scene from a marriage that endures despite the quarrels. The aggrieved partner walked out in a rage, but not before ensuring that the other had been properly fed.