Hooked on weapons exports
Forward! The march, the burden and the desert, weariness and anger.
~Arthur Rimbaud, “A Season in Hell”
The French defence industry has become addicted to arms exports as part of a national strategy to remain a global military player. To feed this addiction, France is effectively allowing undemocratic countries in the Middle East and elsewhere to purchase French diplomatic silence and political complicity for their crimes.
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While it is common knowledge that the Middle East has been a near-permanent theatre of American meddling since the end of World War II, it is less well known that France has appeared as an increasingly prominent player in arms exports to the region since the turn of the last decade. Between 2009-2018, France increased its arms sales to the Middle East by a whopping 261%. In terms of jump in volume of sales, the country was second only to Israel during this period. Today France is the third-largest exporter of arms in the world, after the United States and Russia, and 44 percent of its clients are located in the Middle East, with the largest one being Egypt.
What’s behind this trend? The roots of France’s arms policy go back to Charles de Gaulle and are primarily treated as a domestic concern. However, a non-negligible side effect of this domestic policy happens to be the strengthening of non-democratic Middle Eastern regimes.
As researcher Lucie Béraud-Sudreau has traced out, De Gaulle had a certain idea of France: independent in its decision-making, questing for international prestige and refusing to submit to American hegemony post-WWII. For De Gaulle, France could only achieve such a standing in international affairs with a redoubtable national defence. The quest for nuclear weapons was also born out of this goal.
However, the needs of the French army were not sufficient to support an industry that could take France to and maintain it at De Gaulle’s desired heights. Global buyers were needed to sustain the economic viability of the domestic industry. In a nutshell, this explains the birth of French arms exports. This basic premise still holds consensus in French national politics, and all of De Gaulle’s successors have operated within it and carried it forward. President Pompidou’s defence minister, Michel Debré, made it clear that “if the [arms industry] were to rely on the national market, national defence would no longer be possible.”
Economic legitimacy was further conferred to the project by arguments that it creates employment for French workers. Béraud-Sudreau cites a 2014 McKinsey study showing that around 40,000 jobs in France are created through exporting arms. Additional political and ideological support was extended to arms exports by the argument that purchasing weapons from France granted decolonized states the ability to maintain their newly-found independence in a bipolar world dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. In the words of Valéry Giscard d’Estaign’s defence minister, France “did not interfere in the politics of other nations” by imposing conditions on countries via arms sales. Francois Mitterand’s defence minister went one step further, declaring that “France … can be a leader of non-aligned countries” thanks to its arms exports.
Limits of idealism
The political reality of the purchasing regimes has been less than impressive. Between 1961 and 1990, 31 percent of French arms were sold to Middle Eastern states, which during this period maintained generally dismal human rights and democratic track records. The Cold War was a period of securitization as opposed to democratization in much of the region. In this US- and USSR-defined post-WWII setup, non-democratic regimes entrenched their power, despite the lofty rhetoric of national independence. The sponsorship of these countries by Cold War powers, whether in the name of combating Communism or supporting political independence, was a key enabling factor.
The irony of French claims to the contrary is best illustrated by the fact that regional demand for French arms spiked only after the Six-Day War, when Israel stamped its military superiority over Arab countries thanks to Mirage warplanes purchased from France. Before the war, Israel was an important French ally and the alliance was, according to Béraud-Sudreau, based on mutual opposition to Arab nationalism. The limits of France’s self-assigned idealism are thus rendered clear.
Today, that idealism cannot even be said to exist. If it does, it should only attract public derision and bitter laughter. Once the François Hollande government began to reenergize French arms exports after years of relative slumber following the end of the Cold War, France’s main clients in the Middle East became Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Egypt. All these countries were bastions of counter-revolution in the wake of the Arab Spring; their panic in face of the uprisings and their roles in violently suppressing them are well documented. However, none of this prevented France from selling them arms, including the Rafale warplanes that have become a symbol of pride for French military technology, along with Mistral missiles, Gowind corvettes, Caracal helicopters, frigates and military satellites.
As was the case during the Cold War, France took advantage of the existing geo-political climate at the turn of the last decade. Among the factors behind France emerging as a more trustworthy partner for the status quo, Béraud-Sudreau points to the tensions with Gulf countries following the US decision to recognize the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt; President Obama’s refusal to intervene in Syria, which left the field open for Iran to exert its influence in the war-torn country; and the nuclear accord between Tehran and Washington. The invitation extended to François Hollande to attend the 2015 session of the Gulf Cooperation Council demonstrates the confidence the petro-monarchies now have in France.
Global diplomatic implications
Today, around 50% of the income for the French defence industry comes from arms exports. This economic dependency means that France loses any veritable leverage over the purchasing countries. This is particularly important considering that France’s clients in the Middle East are countries with poor democratic records. It means that, even if wanted, France could not force them to respect basic human rights. In fact, Paris sided with Riyadh in its war against Yemen when it allowed French arms to be used in the conflict.
The consequences extend beyond the Middle East. For example, last month New Delhi witnessed an anti-Muslim pogrom on its streets in broad daylight. The violence is part and parcel of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist program that seeks to remake India as an explicitly Hindu country and regime. In 2016, France signed a contract to sell Rafale warplanes to India at the cost of eight billion euros. Modi’s government is inspired by outright Nazism, and one would imagine that a country like France, with its own history of Nazi subjugation, would at the very least be vocal about the situation of religious minorities in India. But, as political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot remarked in the aftermath of the Delhi pogrom, it’s precisely because they are an important client that France cannot be expected to put any real pressure on India.
Arms exports should not be viewed simply as state-to-state deals; rather, their impact must be evaluated from the point of view of the populations of purchasing countries. And the consequences cannot be measured solely in terms of the uses of arms. Whether used in wars or to curb civil unrest in the Middle East, the point is that, in selling these weapons, France is allowing undemocratic countries to purchase French diplomatic silence and political complicity. And this is far from a negligible commodity when the selling country is a global power with a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
 Unless otherwise noted, all statistics cited herein are taken from: www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/fs_2003_at_2019.pdf.