Obama wishes France held off on warship deal

President Obama said Thursday he wished France had hit the "pause button" on a deal to deliver two warships to Russia, amid efforts to punish Moscow for its interference in Ukraine. 

"I think it would have been preferable to press the pause button," Obama said. "President Hollande so far has made a different decision."

ADVERTISEMENT
The $1.6 billion deal will provide Russia with two French-built helicopter carriers expected to improve Moscow's abilities to launch amphibious attacks.

U.S. officials have expressed concern over the deal in light of Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine, and the Obama administration has implemented restrictions on the export of high-tech materials that could benefit the Russian defense industry.

Obama said he recognized that this was a "big deal" and that "jobs in France are important."

He also stressed that a disagreement over the contract did not "negate the broader cooperation we've had with France with respect to its willingness to work with us on sanctions to discourage President Putin from engaging in further destabilizing actions."

But, Obama said, he had concerns "about continuing significant defense deals with Russia at a time when they have violated basic international law and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of their neighbors."

Obama is slated to meet with François Hollande for dinner Thursday night. The French president, who is hosting world leaders in Normandy on Friday to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, is also slated to share a one-on-one meal with Putin.

The president acknowledged that in addition to the defense deal, there could be tensions surrounding a U.S. prosecution of French bank BNP Paribas over an accused violation of American sanction rules.

Obama said Thursday that he did not "meddle in prosecutions" brought by the Department of Justice. 

"I do not pick up the phone and tell the attorney general how to prosecute cases that have been brought. I do not push for settlements of cases that have been brought,” said the president.

“Those are decisions that are made by an independent Department of Justice," Obama added. "I've communicated that to President Hollande."

Despite those differences, the president insisted that "the relationship between the United States and France has never been stronger."