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Increasing arms sales – but at what cost?

Text by Clea CAULCUTT

Latest update : 2008-12-01

Anxious to sell for 7 billion euros worth of weapons by 2010, France has introduced measures to jumpstart its international weapons sales. But it’s an aim that troubles human rights groups.


France hopes to jumpstart its arms sales, which despite significant growth of the global defense sector, have stagnated. In 2007, France signed contracts worth some 5 billion euros and Paris wants that figure to reach 7 billion euros in 2010, said French Defense Ministry spokesman Laurent Teisseire during a press conference in Paris Wednesday.


Working in close cooperation with arms industries, France hopes to “eventually” increase its share of the global arms market from the current 6% to 13%, roughly the same as Britain.


However, arms exports dipped in 2007, dropping from 5.74 billion euros in 2006 to 5.66 billion euros in 2007, according to a report on French arms exports released Wednesday.


In the list of the world’s top arms exporters, France ranks in fourth place, after the United States (54%), the United Kingdom (13%) and Russia (9.5%). Today, France is closely followed by Israel (5.3%).


 French arms sales to Africa rise


According to the 2007 report, French arms sales to African countries more than doubled last year, rising from 16 million euros to 38 million euros. Chad and Nigeria have joined the list of countries buying French weapons.


In 2007, 5.4 million euros worth of arms were exported to Chad, up from 100,000 in 2006. This evolution illustrates how arms sale are “a good indicator of French geopolitical interests,” says Laurent Léger, author of “”Arms Trafficking, an Investigation on the Merchants of Death,” recalling France’s cagey support for Chadian President Idriss Déby during his recent clashes with a rebel movement based in eastern Chad.


Recently, Chad joined the very exclusive club of oil-producing countries, which includes Angola and Nigeria. In 2007, Nigeria imported 6 million euros worth of weapons. In 2006, there were no French arms exports to Nigeria.


"Arms deliveries abroad follow the ups and downs of diplomacy and also make it possible to maintain control of certain alliances," says Leger, adding that in this case, “one very clearly follows France’s oil interests.”


According to the French Defense Ministry report, France has consolidated her share of arms sales to the Middle East. Today, this region represents 48.3% of global demand, compared with 29% in 2006. In 2007, the biggest regional clients were Saudi Arabia and the UAE.


Fear of a "grain of sand"


According to French Defense Minister Hervé Morin, the hike in arms sales is a result of smoother administrative measures and a reduction in production delays as well as export authorization periods. “Some 97% of the files submitted each month are addressed within a month, up from 50% before,” he told the French business newspaper, “La Tribune”.


Speaking about the administrative streamlining procedures, Teisseire says, “The idea is to avoid repetition,” before going on to explain, “When the same industry sells the same parts to the same customer every two months, we now avoid the same procedures each time.”


But some streamlined measures, according to Leger, could also lead to some blunders. “The current French system is very meticulous, a file is examined by several ministries before obtaining the green light,” he says. “But if the system is made more supple, a grain of sand could slip into the machine and we could realize that we have sold some arms we didn’t necessarily want to,” he said.


Human rights at the center of French policy?


According to the Defense Ministry report, the government aims to “create an environment favorable to arms exports” and to take into account “commercial interests within the diplomatic relations maintained by France with our friends or allies.”


But according to the London-based NGO, Handicap International, France puts its arms exports above the prohibition of cluster bombs. On its Web site, the NGO states that France has “become the leader of a minority movement within the Oslo process which is not favourable to the total ban, without restrictions, on cluster bombs.” Clearly, for Handicap International, France wants to maintain its stock of cluster bombs in its arsenals.


But French Foreign Ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux categorically states that France’s defense policy is never made at the expense of human rights, stressing that the government only authorizes the “sale of weapons to countries that would not use them against their own population".


Date created : 2008-10-23