France’s lucrative arms exports to the Gulf came under renewed scrutiny this week following the release of a classified report showing that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has made much wider use of French arms than officials in Paris acknowledge.
On October 3, 2018, a day after journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, never to be seen again, French President Emmanuel Macron received a highly classified intelligence note, detailing the position of French-made arms used by the Saudi-led coalition fighting a bloody war in Yemen.
The 15-page note by France's DRM military intelligence agency showed that French arms including tanks and laser-guided missile systems sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are being used in the conflict, and that swathes of Yemen’s civilian population live within their range.
Though intended only for Macron, his prime minister, and the foreign and defence ministers, the document was eventually leaked to the independent investigative website Disclose, which published it in full on Monday, casting unwanted attention on France’s involvement in the war devastating Yemen.
The report prompted renewed criticism from opposition politicians and NGOs, with the head of Human Rights Watch in France, Bénédicte Jeannerod, stating that “the government can no longer deny the risk of complicity in war crimes”.
Macron’s government has repeatedly claimed that French arms sold to Saudi Arabia and its allies are used solely for defensive purposes, a stance that has become increasingly hard to maintain as the death toll from the devastating conflict continues to rise.
"To my knowledge, French weapons are not being used in an offensive capacity in the war in Yemen,” Defence Minister Florence Parly told Radio Classique on Thursday, sticking to the official line. “I do not have any evidence that would lead me to believe that French arms are behind civilian victims in Yemen,” she added.
But according to Sébastien Nadot, a French lawmaker and former member of Macron’s LREM party, the classified document proves that Parly and her colleagues in government have been deliberately concealing the facts.
“Ministers are in possession of a document that shows they have been lying for months – and the source is our own intelligence service!” Nadot, who caused a kerfuffle in parliament last month by displaying a “France kills in Yemen” banner, told FRANCE 24.
“How can we speak of weapons of defence when we know French-made tanks are deployed 800 kilometres [into Yemeni territory]?” asked the now-independent lawmaker, whose calls for a parliamentary investigation into the use of French arms in Yemen’s conflict have been dismissed.
'We don't sell weapons like they're baguettes'
Pieter Wezeman, a Senior Researcher at Stockholm-based SIPRI, an independent Swedish institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament, said the French intelligence note confirms earlier findings about the extensive use of Western weapons in war in Yemen.
“The simple fact is that if you sell weapons to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, there is a very significant chance they have been, or will be, used in Yemen,” Wezeman told FRANCE 24.
“What is interesting is that French intelligence were given the assignment to compile this document,” he added, referring to the classified report. “It suggests there is enough concern within government circles for them to want to know more about what is going on in Yemen.”
Pitting a Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi militias, the four-year conflict in Yemen has shattered the country’s economy and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations, whose investigators say both sides may have committed war crimes. More than 10,000 civilians have been killed during the conflict and some 10 million people have been driven to the brink of famine.
The scale of the bloodshed, coupled with the outrage prompted by Khashoggi's brutal murder, has prompted growing criticism of the Western powers – chief among them the US, Britain and France – that arm the Saudi coalition.
France is the world’s third-biggest arms exporter, its sales having increased fourfold under Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande. Between 2008 and 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were, respectively, its second and sixth biggest export markets, according to the French defence ministry.
But in an interview with France Inter radio station in January, Parly described French exports to Saudi Arabia as “relatively modest” and subject to tight restrictions, adding: "We don't sell weapons like they're baguettes.”
‘Not on the front line’
The DRM’s intelligence document states that Caesar cannons, manufactured by French company Nexter and deployed along the Saudi-Yemeni frontier, conduct defensive shelling of Houthi forces as well as back-up "loyalist troops and Saudi armed forces in their progression into Yemeni territory".
Cougar transport helicopters and the A330 MRTT refuelling plane have also seen action, and two French-built ships are serving in the blockade of Yemeni ports that has led to food and medical shortages, the document added, casting a pall over Parly’s assertion that “it is a priority for France that humanitarian aid gets through”.
A second, six-page DRM intelligence report distributed more widely, according to Disclose, showed Leclerc tanks were deployed in defensive positions in a handful of bases in south-eastern Yemen.
Disclose claimed its study of satellite images, video and photographs taken by civilians showed some of the French tanks bought by the UAE had taken part in coalition offensives, including the campaign for control of the Houthi-held port of Hodeidah.
The six-page report also said Emirati Mirage fighter jets equipped with a laser-guided system made by French multinational Thales, known as Damocles, were possibly being used in Yemen.
In response to questions sent by Disclose, the French prime minister’s office neither confirmed nor denied the report, nor questioned the authenticity of the leaked documents. It said France adopted rigorous safeguards when issuing export licences and supported UN efforts to broker peace in Yemen.
"To our knowledge, French arms possessed by coalition forces are placed for the most part in defensive positions, outside of Yemeni territory or under coalition control, but not on the front line," Prime Minister Édouard Philippe's office wrote, adding that France was not aware of Yemeni civilians being killed by French arms.
While the defence ministry, which oversees the DRM, has not commented on the intelligence report, the foreign ministry stressed in a written response to French media that “all arms sales comply with [France’s] international commitments”.
Those commitments include abiding by the terms of the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which regulates the international trade of conventional weapons and bans the sale of weapons that fuel human rights violations or war crimes, and which came into force in 2014.
Critics of the French government say it is in clear breach of its obligations under the ATT, but Wezeman says such breaches are very hard to prove.
“The ATT doesn’t require signatories to stop exporting weapons to countries that go to war. It requires only that governments carry out assessments that their weapons don’t contribute to war crimes,” Wezeman explained. “In this case, France has presumably concluded that there is not enough reason to stop its exports.”
He added: “Even if you did prove [French] weapons were used [against civilians], you would still have to prove it was intentional or the result of gross negligence. International law says you have to be very careful, but it is very hard to prove one hasn’t been careful.”
The sensitive issue has put France at odds with its key partner Germany, which imposed an embargo on arms exports to Riyadh in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder. The move sparked stinging criticism from Paris and London, with Macron accusing the German government of “demagoguery”.
In an unusually strong-worded op-ed published on the website of Germany’s Federal Academy for Security Studies, Anne-Marie Descôtes, the French ambassador to Berlin, warned that the “unpredictability of German policy on arms export controls” carried “major consequences for [Franco-German] defence cooperation and the construction of European sovereignty”.
Preserving sovereignty through an independent arms industry has long been a cornerstone of French defence policy, an imperative that often overrides ethical concerns about the way French arms are used.
“The trouble is France’s army is too small for the amount of weapons produced,” said Élie Tenenbaum, a research fellow at the IFRI Security Studies Centre in Paris, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “To remain profitable, French firms have to focus on exports. They would rather export to Europe, but the market is dominated by US competitors. So they have to turn to the Middle-East.”
Some critics of Germany’s decision to halt exports have argued that Berlin had less to lose than France, but SIPRI’s Wezeman rejects the argument.
“Germany would have profited considerably from arms deals with Saudi Arabia, which was very interested in German arms, particularly German tanks. The stakes were just as important,” he said, suggesting Berlin’s policy change reflected a cultural difference.
“In Germany and in several Nordic countries there is traditionally much stronger political pressure to be more careful with arms exports,” Wezeman added.
French lawmaker Nadot believes that instead of admonishing the German government, France would be better advised to follow the example set by its European partner, particularly at a time when US President Donald Trump’s administration is undermining the rules-based international order.
What’s more, Nadot notes that France is sapping the spirit of the ATT treaty it once championed.
When the treaty came into force in 2014, “France was rightly proud of the fact that 60 countries had ratified it, with more to follow,” he said. “And yet, we are now trampling on its principles.”