A day after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, French President Emanuel Macron and his top ministers received a classified intelligence briefing documenting how Saudi Arabia was using French weapons in Yemen. Six months later, with Germany and other European countries having stopped selling arms to the Saudis, Macron called “populist” calls for France to do the same.
“What is the connection between the arms sales and the murder of Mr. Khashoggi?” I understand the connection with what is happening in Yemen, but there is no connection with Mr. Khashoggi, ”the president said. “It is sheer demagoguery to say, ‘We have to stop the arms sales.’ It has nothing to do with Mr. Khashoggi.
More than 130,000 Yemenis have already been killed in the ongoing civil war there, and more than 16 million do not have enough to eat. But the suffering of ordinary Yemenis at the hands of the Saudi coalition and Houthi fighters has not ended French arms exports to Saudi Arabia. In 2018, French arms exports increased by 50%; they included a billion euro sale to Saudi Arabia of patrol boats and other equipment. As Reuters noted, one of the tactics used by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is to block ports controlled by rival Houthis.
And last year, when French arms exports fell dramatically, sales to Saudi Arabia helped keep the French defense industry afloat. The Gulf Kingdom bought 704 million euros in French weapons, more than any other country. And despite the drop last year, French arms sales rose 44% between 2016 and 2020, surpassing all other arms exporters.
Most countries with significant defense industries depend on exports for their sustainability. But France secures exports with extreme energy which involves not only the executives of the defense industry but the politicians up to the President of the Republic. Indeed, even for French arms manufacturers who are not or partially owned by the government, French politicians are acting as sellers in other countries and are not afraid to overwhelm companies in other countries in the process. Certainly, the ministers and officials of the United States and many other countries are also waging the deadly wars of their countries against other rulers. Few, however, do so with as much energy as France.
And France, which sees itself as a global player, clearly believes that this status justifies unfriendly negotiating tactics to the detriment of allied countries. “Arms exports are the economic model of our sovereignty,” noted Defense Minister Florence Parly in 2018.
The saga of the proposed purchase of fighter planes by Switzerland is an illustration of this. In 2012, the country decided to replace its aging fleet of fighter jets with Saab Gripens. The Swedish plane, deemed not to be the best performing but good value for money, beat Dassault Rafale – which had struggled to find foreign buyers – and the Eurofighter Typhoon. But at the 11th hour, a confidential report casting doubt on the capabilities of Gripen surfaced and created a media circus. (Oddly enough, the report circulated was in English, not one of Switzerland’s official languages.) In a subsequent referendum, 52% of voters rejected the deal. This year, Switzerland finally made a new decision in favor of the F-35.
Then-president Francois Hollande was a little more open about government aid to arms manufacturers than other French politicians were. At the 2013 Paris Air Show, while Hollande was helping Serge Dassault, senior CEO of Dassault Aviation, climb the steps of an exhibition stand, he joked that “it is the state that supports Dassault… like ‘habit “.
The arrangement leaves countries whose politicians do not use tough tactics to sell weapons at a distinct disadvantage. And that doesn’t endear France to its fellow EU member states. Indeed, when it comes to defense equipment, France is clearly unpopular among EU member states for another reason: it is known to systematically use an escape clause in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to award public contracts to French companies. The escape clause, Article 346, allows EU governments to source from domestic companies rather than subjecting contracts to an EU-wide tender, but only in cases of essential security interest. However, it is up to the Member States themselves to determine what they consider to be an essential security interest.
France is one of the countries which interpret this interest in a fairly liberal manner. As the European Parliament’s research service noted in a report in October last year, “despite repeated indications from the European Commission and the CJEU17 that Article 346 TFEU should only be used for for specific reasons and on a case-by-case basis, in practice, many Member States States continued to interpret the provision “as a categorical or automatic exclusion of armaments from the application of EU law”. In other words, these Member States use the clause to systematically buy from their defense industries to the detriment of other European companies. In 2019, a committee of the European Parliament released a report that called on ‘Member States [to] strictly respect the conditions of application of the exemptions and, in particular, strictly limit the potentially abusive use of article 346 ”. But the abuse continues and governments that have conscientiously put public procurement to EU-wide competitive bidding are losing out.
All of this explains why France’s furious reaction to AUKUS received little sympathy from its allies. No one likes to see a friend hurt – but if that friend has a habit of advancing their interests at the expense of others, there is no love lost. If France is to step up its support against the US, UK and Australia, it may need to rethink the way it treats its friends, including in the key area of defense exports.