Arms exports – the last instrument of French sovereignty?

_ Erwan de Kerjean, Center for Analysis and Prospective (CAP), Institute of Social, Economic and Political Sciences. 2 January 2022, Lyon.*

The signing of the 18 Rafale fighter aircraft contract between France and Greece for 2.4 billion euros illustrates an often-overlooked relationship between diplomacy and arms sales: the export of equipment designed completely independently like the Rafale fighter aircraft, and its equipment and armaments is an export of national sovereignty and not only that of a powerful weapons system by an industrialist or a state support system for exports.

The fact is often ignored but the export of arms is, by definition, prohibited and this since the decree of April 18, 1939: it is only authorized by derogation within a complex framework of administrative authorizations, where each sovereign actor has his part to play but where the decision is interministerial or even presidential in the last resort: France’s President, the French Prime Minister (SGDSN), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the bodies of the Ministry of Defence (EMA and DGA), Finance or even other ministries (transport, justice, etc.).

This is the reason why any decision to export translates a major political act since it is basically an exception strictly framed by national procedures, international treaties and international conventions introduced into French positive law.

An exceptional act, therefore, the export of arms is a fully sovereign act. It is in this that it must be supported and promoted. The author will return to the fundamentals of the relationship between arms exports and national sovereignty in this analytical note.

The arms exports or exported sovereignty

The sale of the Rafale fighter aircraft to Greece perfectly illustrates the relationship between diplomacy, arms sales and sovereignty. This sale is in fact part of the particular context of the Turkish strategy to control immigration [1], energy [2] and terrorism [3] routes : a triple strategy directed against the very interests of Europe.

Faced with regular violations of its air and maritime space, Athens has chosen a rearmament strategy to ensure respect for its territorial sovereignty. She spontaneously turned to France. This choice is linked to a clear position of France (which is not customary under the Macronian presidency) vis-à-vis Turkey, as well as the existence in the catalogue of French arms of aircraft weapons carrying fully strategic weaponry (the Scalp airborne cruise missiles) and air superiority (the Meteor missile).

Such a conjunction is not the result of chance; here as for deterrence, Emmanuel Macron is the heir of a doctrine set by General De Gaulle: national sovereignty requires the independence of weaponry:

“France’s defence must be French. It is a necessity that has not always been very familiar in recent years. I know it. It is essential that it becomes so again. A country like France, if it happens to wage war, it must be its war. Its effort must be a national effort. If it were otherwise, our country would be in contradiction with everything it has been since its origins, with its role, with the esteem it has for itself, with its soul.” – Charles De Gaulle, Ecole de Guerre, 3 November 1959.

This two-tier national system – diplomatic sovereignty and independent military means – naturally attracts foreign countries which pursue the same strategy and want to acquire the same material means of independence. No surprise therefore that the geography of French arms sales draws the map of non-aligned countries wishing to fully control their military instrument: India, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Morocco, etc. No surprise either to see the Rafale fighter aircraft exported to India and not to Belgium, Egypt and not Saudi Arabia, Greece and not the Netherlands. No surprise, finally, to note that it is indeed the double strategic and independent character of the weapons system in question, which is the reason for the purchase by Greece, and not any European defence quite incapable of resisting the Turkish rule …

The export of French arms is therefore indeed a projected, exported sovereignty.

French-style exports first of all illustrate the sovereign freedom that France intends to exercise by trading or not with such and such a country. The extent of its R&D capabilities, its range of platforms, weapons and equipment makes France one of the few countries in the world to know how to design, produce, maintain and modernize complex and major effect weapon systems in all the decisive areas of the theatres of confrontation: space, land, sea and air.

This ability gives it the right to sell or not to sell to such a country: it sends a clear political message both to the country to which it sells and to the one to which it does not sell.

The membership in this small club – in which also emerge the United States, Russia, China, to a lesser extent Israel, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy, not to mention Turkey and South Korea – also makes it possible to help organize the market through various instruments (treaties prohibiting systems, non-proliferation treaties, embargoes) or to block any regulation contrary to one’s interests.

In this regard, France’s freedom of trade in the field of arms sales cannot be hampered by the imposition of foreign rules: the export of arms being a sovereign act, competition in the markets is competition between states. The imposition of American rules – which the administration knows how to bypass and have its manufacturers bypass, such as anti-corruption regulations, technological standards, embargoes – is thus one of the major challenges facing France’s sovereignty.

France is one of the few Western nations to be the real competitor of the United States, the merciless rivalry in the field of fighter aircraft is a complete illustration of this. Work of Pharisees preoccupied with the affirmation of their virtue while seeking above all to crush their competitors, this normalization of the arms market calls on the contrary for a renewal of sovereignty.

This freedom must also be defended in the field of cooperation that France intends to conduct. It must therefore negotiate this cooperation with partners who respect its sovereignty, leaving it complete freedom of use for its own operations and allowing itself the freedom to export co-developed equipment. In the absence of a German partner which unilaterally imposes its own moral conceptions with variable geometry (Algeria and Turkey rather than Saudi Arabia, for example), other more flexible partners must be chosen. We cannot in fact spend significant R&D funds, which are justified only by the search for autonomy, on cooperative ventures which would reduce or annul this autonomy.

In this sense, European cooperation is not the extension of a national model of independence but indeed – and this is the goal sought by its authors – a mutual dependence which goes against the national concept explained in this policy note. This dependency is located at three levels:

Diplomatic dependence: countries have divergent interests which place exportation under the caudine forks of the most prudent; Germany, for example, does not want to export to Saudi Arabia or the UAE, unlike France;

Technical dependence: foreign components, banned from exporting to certain destinations, can block that of more complete systems from another country (the case of the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain against Germany blocking components used in the manufacture of European Typhoon weapons planes produced by the British production chain and destined for Saudi Arabia);

Legal dependence : the more the material depends on a foreign country or on European funding, the more its export is subject to restrictive criteria (ethics, embargoes, geopolitics of NGOs and not of states, etc.).

The information report on export control of the Defence Commission of the French National Assembly clearly states:

“Export decisions touch the deep strategic interests of states and are at the heart of sovereignty. Such a transfer of jurisdiction, which would require unanimity, would constitute an unprecedented transfer of sovereignty since it would mean, for each state, accepting a right of veto over its defence policy from other member states or European institutions. However, many states of the Union do not export armaments and have no appetite to assume the risk of a third party from which they do not derive any direct benefit. A situation of permanent blockage could result”.[4]

But this is to forget that in the case of material developed in cooperation or with European funding, the export control will in any case be shared, potentially putting the export of the material co-developed at risk.

The hard-negotiated de minimis agreement between France and Germany [5] illustrates well this dependence that European federalists want to establish in this sovereign domain: the above mentioned agreement has not yet received the sanction of national parliaments and is at the mercy of the coalition contract (Koalitionsvertrag) of the German government. The provisions of this coalition contract have greater political force than any bilateral agreement. With the German green party, the de minimis agreement will inevitably be called into question.

France is moreover fully to blame in this affair: not only did its elites know about the problem for a long time (the first German coalition contract announcing a restriction on the export of arms dates from 2013), but in addition they are ready to raise the 20 percent threshold in order to prevent German manufacturers from being excluded from the manufacture of French equipment! It is the curious sentence, which one can read in the quoted report:

“Other criticisms, shared in particular by the defenders of a European strategic autonomy, argue that this agreement risks replacing the temptation of German-free with an incentive for French manufacturers to develop military equipment in which the proportion of components Germans remains below the de minimis threshold set at 20 percent. This is also a real fear of German industrialists. The French authorities are open to the idea of ​​raising this threshold to a higher level”. [6]

With such voluntary servitude to the European idea, export decisions of French arms will take place in the Bundestag and no longer in Paris: this is how NGOs, environmentalists and German authorities understand it.

Finally, let us add that freedom is also nested in the moral conception of the arms trade. From the moment when national decisions are taken according to its rules of ethics, which are moreover those that each proclaims on its side, there is no reason to allow these decisions to be challenged on the grounds that they would contravene the public interpretation of these same rules by its competitors.

This freedom to export then makes it possible to graduate the intensity of the relations that France decides to maintain with such and such a country. French geopolitics – that is, its ability to take advantage of its geography, its history and its assets to ensure its influence – is expressed by the type of material it is ready to sell.

The sale of aircraft, conventional submarines, observation satellites, radar or missile systems, or sensitive services (R&D) in fact inscribes the bilateral relationship for a long time: it thus determines a anchoring which is valid at least for the lifetime of a system (on average 30 years for a weapons plane; 35 years for a submarine; 15 years for a missile system).

This lasting anchoring allows the sharing of doctrine, training, information, equipment for exercises or operations. France has thus equipped almost entirely, until recently, key countries for its diplomacy such as the UAE and Qatar. It was, or still is depending on, the dual source in Saudi Arabia (for surface-to-air defence, the navy, the national fuard), in Oman (for the royal guard), in India, in the UAE, in Qatar, in Egypt, Brazil, Malaysia, etc.

France continues to be one of the rare countries called for calls for tenders on major systems (submarines in Poland, the Netherlands, Indonesia; weapons planes and surface-to-air defence in Switzerland, etc.), proof that it still weighs significantly both diplomatically and industrially.

Finally, the export of arms is an added value: it in fact multiplies sovereignty.

In France, financial flows are drawn from exports and not only allow the state to consolidate its defence planning, to derive income from it (training), but also for manufacturers to consolidate investments on own funds to develop versions later useful to the French military. The consequences on qualified and non-relocatable employment are known: between 40 and 50 thousand jobs depend directly from arms exports, or around 25 percent of jobs in the sector.

It then projects on the partner country a French model of sovereignty where the national independence of the buyer country is not only respected but consolidated by a seller country – France – which does not issue restrictions on use insofar as the relationship is framed by a state-to-state agreement based on respect for sovereignty. The country is no longer a client, but a partner which enters the French sphere of influence bound by an intergovernmental contract producing and allowing fruitful exchanges of information and experiences. The sales of weapons planes in India and that of submarines in Brazil illustrate this. This arms sale often results in a political relationship that leads to new opportunities often far away from the defence sector. In this sense, France’s reliability as a supplier of weapons systems paves the way for other sales in other strategic sectors (nuclear power, etc.).

This sovereign model in the design, production and export of weapons has proven itself. Turkey and South Korea, and to a lesser extent Indonesia and India, are following the French example: high rate of R&D, development of national monopoly champions, structuring of the offer, promotion organized on armaments markets and full diplomatic support for armaments offers.

The figures from one year to the next do not matter: good year or bad year, France continues to belong to the small club of nations that matter because they have mastery of the technologies that govern the defence of entire countries.

However, exporting does not escape the natural order of things: everything is constantly changing. France’s position is thus strong but is eroding because the very engine of this model – sovereignty – is seized up. Sovereignty has its demands that politicians do not understand: the export of arms is another illustration of this.

The export of arms or the demands of sovereignty

Closely correlated with sovereignty, the export of arms indeed supposes that France remains faithful to its credo: neither unilateral nor multilateral, but non-aligned.

The first requirement is therefore of the order of diplomacy. The countries interested in French armaments do not only buy world-class products developed for and by the French military seasoned in combat: they also want to buy a part of French diplomacy, its influence to be weighed in their region or at the level international (through its own alliances or its seat on the Security Council). This entails two political choices for France: that it remains non-aligned vis-à-vis third parties and that it remains sovereign in this seller-buyer relationship.

France’s policy of non-alignment, which has been so profitable to it vis-à-vis countries that are themselves non-aligned or seeking independence through defence at all costs, has been brought to a standstill by the reinstatement of France (without debate or impact studies) in the integrated military structures of NATO. This choice can pass, vis-à-vis the foreign market, as a vassalage granted to the United States and the disappearance of a specific French diplomatic character which was nevertheless part of its status as a power. If France is in the integrated military organization of NATO, then why buy French? You might as well buy American.

An economic model of sovereignty, the export of arms is clearly at odds with European cooperation as thought and organized today, with Germany in particular. A cooperation that advocates company mergers and common programs for all systems with major effect is a policy detrimental to the export of national armaments. What we are projecting is not European or Franco-German sovereignty, which does not exist, but indeed that of France, with behind the specificity of its materials designed with a goal of national independence.

The French government’s current discourse still mentions export as an instrument of sovereignty (Ms. Parly, July 4, 2018) but, at the same time, speaks of European autonomy, which reduces, or cancels said sovereignty (see the 2017 Strategic Review). This can only produce harmful confusion among countries interested in national weapons systems as well as among national, state, or industrial promoters of these materials on export markets.

Being non-aligned also means not being dependent on the partner country. This raises the fundamental question of the best judgment to be made in certain areas: reciprocal defence clauses, technology transfers, end use of the products sold. It is therefore up to France to impose the framework of its cooperation as far as possible and in accordance with its interests.

The second requirement is linked to national defence . The link between arms exports and the independence of national military capabilities is unfortunately obscured most of the time by an ignorant or ideological public, civil (which sees only the balance of the budget without an export vision) as military (which sees only the immediate capacity on the ground and not the indispensable ecosystem).

The fact remains that the only materials which guarantee them autonomy of use, whatever the theatre of operation, are those that the national industry has developed and produced. This supposes a very high rate of R&D: of the order of a third of the total equipment expenditure which, itself, must consume around 50 percent of the defence budget (excluding pensions), if we want superior, sufficient and durable armaments. If we aim for 3 percent of GDP for defence, which the evolution of the world would justify, we would have to reserve 0.5% of GDP for defence R&D.

Another reason in favour of sustained R&D over time and intensity: while the partner countries now benefit from compensation, that is to say from transfers of know-how which gradually allow them to reach a certain level of technological maturity, it becomes imperative to continue the race for innovation. First, renew the range of export products in the face of traditional (American, Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Israeli) and new (Turkish, South Korean, Chinese, etc., to name only the three main ones) competition, requires the substantial mobilization of study funds upstream and to conduct an active policy of demonstrators taking into account the specific constraints of export from their design and then to treat an export program as an arming program. Then, no longer wanting to depend on foreign components (American, but not exclusively) makes it necessary to initiate the development of national components on systems with a major effect.

Finally, the mobilization of actors is the last condition to be fulfilled. The export of arms is in itself an indicator of the unity or disunity of a nation in a sector directly affecting its sovereign interests. An arms export indeed requires a common vision of a country and the strategic interest that it has for France ; it therefore imposes seamless coordination within the state and between the state services and the national armaments industry. This condition is virtuous insofar as it obliges the state to work in a network, which goes against its working habits in silos. This coordination is that of information, travel and funding.

While these last two conditions are relatively easy to meet, financing for arms exports is, on the other hand, increasingly difficult to obtain. The group for the land armament industry (GICAT) has twice underlined [7] the over-compliance strategy of French banks which increasingly prohibits banks from financing arms exports. However, the financing by credit of an arms export is very often one of the discriminating added values ​​to impose itself in the face of competition which fully understands that it is a weapon. GICAT points to four factors that explain the reluctance or even the withdrawal of banks from this activity:

  1. Lack of knowledge of the defence industry (products, markets, competition).
  2. Exposure to economic but also political sanctions from the United States: “Defence being a sector where competition is strong and sometimes head-on with the Americans, it is more subject to sanctions than others. One of the direct consequences may be the loss of their banking license on the US market. The only risk of a sanction leads the exposed banks to take preventive decisions by refusing this type of file by default.” [8]
  3. The compliance rules imposed by the European Commission in the name of the fight against money laundering and corruption.
  4. NGO campaigns that can damage their image.

Here, as elsewhere, it is up to the state to regain control: failing to obtain by any means at its disposal the re-entry into the ranks of the banks which, after having arrogated to themselves the moral monopoly of democracy by deciding which political party to finance or not, arrogates that of the arms trade. The state will have to match its inter-governmental agreements (AIG) with its own financial guarantee and its own credits, thus replacing actors who prefer the global financial sphere to the financing of national industry.

The export of arms or the measure of a nation’s influence

In summary, the export of arms is the thermometer of a nation’s influence abroad: it gives the exact measure of its diplomatic, military, industrial and technological influence. The clientele (in both senses of the word) of France demonstrates this.

Despite all the renunciations of its political environment, France remains a great sovereign country: arms sales, a highly politically incorrect index but which says it all, make a powerful contribution to it.


[1] By Turkey and Libya.

[2] By claims of sovereignty over the Greek or Cypriot EEZ

[3] By the continual use of the reservoir of Islamist terrorists, stipended, armed and transferred, as necessary, from Syria to Libya, from Libya to Nagorno-Karabakh.

[4] Op cit, page 103. Note that the debate is also German. The German justice recently reaffirmed the prerogative of the federal government in matters of control of defence exports. The Berlin Administrative Court has, in a judgment in response to four legal proceedings brought by small arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch following the denials of some of its license applications in 2018 and 2019, confirmed that the review of applications for licenses to export war material fell under the exclusive competence of the federal government, and more particularly of the Federal Security Council (Bundessicherheitsrat). In doing so, government decisions in this area are “largely free from judicial oversight”, being a prerogative of the executive. (Hartpunkt, 01/12/2021).

[5] The decree of 23 October 2019 on the de minimis agreement facilitates transfers of goods from one manufacturer to another, applying below a threshold of 20 percent and accompanied by simplified methods of granting licenses.

[6] Page 100.

[7] October 19, 2020: ” How the new constraints of the French banking system endanger our defence and security industry”, and January 11, 2021: “Financing of the defence and security industry: avenues for support our BITD”.

[8] Note from GICAT, dated 11/01/2021, page 3.

*Translated from the original on CAP ISSEP.

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