Bombs a Oui! French Arms Sales Continue to Soar Despite Mistral Deal Collapse

French arms sales soar
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls leaves the the cockpit of a Dassault Rafale fighter as he visits the 51st Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport near Paris, June 19, 2015. Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

The cancellation of a deal like the 1 billion euro contract to sell two Mistral warships to Russia would have left a considerable hole in the pocket of most arms exporters, but France is still on course to end 2015 as the most prolific arms seller in Europe.

It is telling that as the Mistral deal was scrapped in early August, French President Franois Hollande answered reporters' questions from Egypt, where he was celebrating the opening of the new Suez Canal with Egypt's new French-made Rafale jets flying overhead. The jets, delivered less than two weeks before, were the first of 24 aircraft purchased by the Egyptian armed forces from France in a deal that dwarfs the Mistral contract several times over.

Just in June, during a visit to France, Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman signed off on 10 contracts with French arms sellers, including a deal for 23 Airbus H145 helicopters. In May, Qatar ordered 24 Rafales, and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said India was due to place an official order for yet more Rafales by the end of the year.

"The French Ministry of Defense says that French arms sales rose by 18 percent in 2014, the country's best export performance for 15 years," says Bilal Y. Saab, a Middle East security expert at the Atlantic Council, who notes that French sales overtook Germany's last year. Statistics from the government showed sales of more than 8 billion euros in 2014, the highest since it started publishing the data in 1999. Le Drian told public broadcast channel BFMTV in June that it was likely French arms exports would exceed 15 billion euros in 2015.

Benot Gomis, an international security consultant and associate fellow at London's Chatham House who has also worked in the strategic directorate of the French Ministry of Defense, says he believes the French state's role in these deals is crucial. "The government itself is at the heart of all these sales, more so than other countries," he adds, noting that Hollande needs to do whatever he can to boost the economy and cut unemployment.

The French state is the majority shareholder (63 percent) of naval manufacturer DCNS, which won a 1 billion euro contract to supply Egypt with a FREMM frigate earlier this year. The government also holds shares of Airbus and the Thales Group, and has some influence on family-owned Dassault Aviation, which manufactures the Rafale jet, since Airbus has shares in it.

Frequent visits to French arms clients by Hollande, Le Drian and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius have strengthened ties between France and its new Middle Eastern and Asian client base, according to Saab, pointing to Hollande's invitation to the Gulf Cooperation Council's May summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "He is the first foreign leader to attend the summit, and Hollande's attendance at a ceremony in Doha before the GCC summit was even more significant," Saab says, referring to the annual economic summit of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

"This rapprochement helped Paris sell Doha 24 Rafale fighter jets and other military equipment worth $7 billion," Saab says. "France is doing better than all other European countries because it's matching its arms sales with political engagement. That's what you call Defense Diplomacy 101."