France’s Weapons Industry Is Growing Rich off Dictatorships

Authoritarian governments like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have funded a boom in France’s arms industry. Now, with war in Ukraine, it’s setting its sights on rearming Europe.

French president Emmanuel Macron and UAE president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan speak with Dassault Aviation group CEO Eric Trappier during a state dinner held at the Grand Trianon of the Versailles castle near Paris on July 18, 2022. (Christophe Petit Tesson / Pool / AFP via Getty Images)

All things considered, 2021 was another good year for France’s arms industry. According to the annual report to parliament released in late September by the Ministry of Armed Forces, French corporations sold upward of €11.7 billion worth of weapons and other military-related technology to foreign states.

Bouncing back from a pandemic-induced lull in big-ticket deals, 2021 will go down as the French defense industry’s third-best year on record in terms of exports — after 2015 and 2016, which saw €16.9 billion and €13.9 billion worth of sales, respectively. The Australian government’s September 2021 headline-grabbing rupture of its contract for twelve submarines from the French shipbuilder Naval Group provoked anxiety in Paris over the appeal of French weaponry, and less-than-subtle accusations of American treachery. This year’s report should provide some consolation: 2021’s haul confirms France’s position in third place among global arms exporters, behind the United States and Russia.

Egypt, Greece, Croatia, Saudi Arabia, and India round out the pack of France’s top export clients. Against the backdrop of simmering maritime and diplomatic tensions between Greece and Turkey, the French and Greek governments signed a contract for the sale of three frigates (from the Naval group) for over €3 billion in September 2021. The sale came on the heels of Greece’s January 2021 purchase of eighteen used and new Rafale fighter jets.

The Greek deal, and the sale of twelve used Rafale jets from the French air force to Croatia — coupled with a replacement order to the French aviation company Dassault — are part of a move by France to deepen military-commercial ties within the European Union (EU). The ministerial report boasts of the growing share of French arms that are going toward European states, which as a portion of exports has grown from a little over 10 percent in 2012 to over one-third a decade later. This is a pivot that French military suppliers (and their relays in the defense ministry and foreign office) are eager to accelerate, in the hope of carving out a sizeable market share of EU procurements as member states expand their military budgets in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But the crux of France’s increasing arms exports remains its partnerships with non-European, and in many cases authoritarian governments. Egypt, France’s top client of 2021 at €4.5 billion of purchases, ordered thirty Rafale jets, the latest deal in its deepening military partnership with the French government. To the outrage of human-rights advocates, in December 2020 Egypt’s authoritarian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest order of merit.

2022 promises to be an equally lucrative year for French suppliers. And especially for the Rafale jet’s manufacturer, Dassault Aviation, namesake of a multigenerational political dynasty — and France’s sixth largest family fortune — whose latest scion, Victor Habert-Dassault, won his late uncle Olivier Dassault’s seat in parliament in a 2021 by-election, with the right-wing Les Républicains.

In February, the Indonesian and French governments concluded the sale of six Rafales, the first tranche of what is expected to be a deal totaling forty-two jets. December 2021’s sale of eighty Rafales to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will likewise be accounted for in the 2022 rendition of the report. The contract, alongside the sale of twelve Airbus helicopters, was officially signed in April of this year for the plump sum of €17 billion, nearly half of France’s €41 billion annual defense budget. It’s the jet’s largest foreign sale to date.

Lack of Transparency

In addition to laying out the strategic vision supposedly guiding French officials in their dealings with foreign governments, the annual report to parliament is the only public document that tallies French arms exports. Its annexes claim to give an itemized overview of French sales, including the figures transmitted to the United Nations, in conformity with the international Arms Trade Treaty signed in 2013.

But human rights and transparency advocates claim that the document is still shrouded in opacity and bureaucratese, especially when it comes to dodging critiques that certain arms sales flout international law, contracting with buyers who use the acquired weapons against civilians.

“It’s a promotional report for France’s military-industrial base,” Aymeric Elluin, campaigner at Amnesty International France, told Jacobin. “It’s not a report that permits parliamentary oversight and regulation.”

In recent years, the French government has been the target of a growing tide of criticism for its eagerness to deal with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The investigative media outlet Disclose revealed in 2019 that the latter two powers, engaged in a devastating civil war in Yemen, used French weapons in unscrupulous bombardments of civilians, to the knowledge of French government officials.

In 2021, France sold upward of €780 million of arms to Saudi Arabia. But that amount would not easily account for the handful of helicopters, rocket launchers, cannons, and other small arms reportedly sold to the monarchy, Amnesty International argues in a note published on September 26. The organization likewise judges the €230 million of announced sales to the UAE to be an understatement, one hypothesis being that the transfer included technology not covered by the convention of the Arms Trade Treaty. “We don’t know what we sent to the United Arab Emirates, which is a major problem,” says Elluin.

Like for all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, arms sales have been a component of French foreign policy for decades. But since the mid-2010s and the presidency of François Hollande, there’s been a marked acceleration of what Elluin calls a new “arms diplomacy.” This has been especially prevalent in French dealings with key powers like India, or the Middle East trio of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. Initially released on the market in the early 2000s, the Rafale — currently the crown jewel of French arms exports — struggled to find foreign buyers until the February 2015 signing of a breakthrough contract with Egypt for twenty-four jets.

France’s new “arms diplomacy” proved timely, as the deal with Egypt coincided with a chill of the country’s relations with the United States. Following el-Sisi’s seizure of power in 2014, the Obama administration imposed a two-year arms embargo on the Egyptian state. The United States is still the dominant supplier across the region, but France has tried to seize on the straining of relations between the United States and its Middle Eastern supports, and the latter’s desires to diversify arms suppliers.

“As soon as there’s an opening, the French have rushed into it,” says Elluin, coauthor of the 2021 book, Ventes d’armes, une honte française (Arms sales — France’s shame).

One of the arguments raised by those who defend selling arms, even to less-than-savory authoritarian powers, is that it gives a country like France leverage to enforce or pursue other priorities. “It’s not true,” says Elluin. “Since 2015 in Saudi Arabia, arms diplomacy has not given [France] a supplementary weight to make Saudi Arabia cease air strikes in Yemen. In Egypt, this kind of diplomacy has given no leverage to allow France to change the nature of the Sisi regime.”

‘“Arms diplomacy’ . . . really doesn’t exist,” Elluin concludes. “It’s just about economic markets, which has given France no influence. What’s more, it gives the impression that France is dependent on these clients. Without them, we’d lose the capacity to produce our own arms.”

In December 2021, Saudi Arabia closed down the UN bureau investigating war crimes in Yemen. The French and Western charm offensive — Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman was welcomed to Paris this summer — has likewise proven unable to wrestle increases in oil and gas production from the Gulf monarchies.

The same might be said of France’s dealings with Russia. Thales — a French multinational which produces sophisticated military technology and software  —delivered nearly €7 million euros worth of goods to the Russia in 2021, despite the imposition of a European embargo from 2014. Between 2015 and 2020, French suppliers delivered over €150 million worth of supplies to the Russian military, exploiting a loophole in the European embargo that protected contracts signed prior to 2014.

Military Autonomy

Aggressivity on arms exports responds to what French leaders refer to as a strategic necessity. The French military, the largest in the European Union on budgetary terms, would be unable to support by its own procurements the full range of suppliers needed to outfit a modern military. Exports are what enables the country to maintain a strategic and military “autonomy” — a word that riddles the Ministry of the Armed Forces’ report to parliament.

2021’s sales are “good news for the sustainability of an independent national industry of which our armed forces are the primary beneficiaries, but also for employment throughout our country,” Sébastien Lecornu, Minister of the Armies, writes in the introductory letter to the report.

France’s “Industrial and technological defense base” (BITD) — the web of over four thousand contractors and subcontractors that makes up the country’s military-industrial complex — employs upward of two hundred thousand workers. Taken together, France’s BITD saw annual revenue flows of €30 billion, in a global defense market of over €531 billion of revenues in 2020 according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s index of the industry’s largest businesses.

The US defense industry dominates the pack within the North Atlantic bloc. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has likewise reinforced the argument — advanced by eastern members in the European Union — that European and American militaries need to remain closely wedded diplomatically in terms of technology and matériel.

Since the invasion, there’s been an uptick in European contracts for US suppliers like Lockheed Martin and Boeing — purchases that the French would like to see reoriented toward the reinforcement of Europe’s “strategic autonomy,” as President Emmanuel Macron has long defined his vision of what the bloc needs to develop diplomatically and militarily. For example, Germany’s purchase, announced in March 2022, of thirty-five F-35 jets from the United States is perceived in Paris as a snub to French-led attempts to deepen military integration through plans to develop EU alternatives.

“Europe has long thought of itself as a market,” Macron said during his inaugural address at the June 2022 Eurosatory defense industry expo outside Paris, announcing that Europe is now entering a “war economy, in which, I think, we’ll have to plan for the long haul.” European governments will be spending and buying more hardware in the coming years, and so the president-salesman had one piece of advice: “let’s not go back to repeating the errors of the past — spending a lot only to buy from elsewhere is not a good idea.”