France's salesman: The quiet minister who sold billions in subs and jets
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France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the man behind a string of lucrative military contracts won by French contractors, is an oddity in the cabinet of President François Hollande: he is popular, successful, and a purveyor of good news.
When soft-spoken François Hollande came to power in 2012, ending France's 17-year wait for a left-wing leader, few could have foreseen his metamorphosis into one of the most bellicose French presidents in modern history – one who would order military interventions in a range of African and Middle Eastern theatres. Nor was his reserved, bespectacled defence minister, a former professor and school inspector, expected to become the country’s most accomplished arms dealer.
Jean-Yves Le Drian’s flair as a salesman was once again on display this week as it emerged France had beaten Japan and Germany to one of the world's most lucrative defence contracts: a €34 billion deal to build a fleet of 12 Barracuda-class submarines for Australia. DCNS, the French state-owned shipbuilder which clinched the deal against all odds, said it would create around 4,000 French jobs, benefitting shipyards and industrial sites in Brest, Nantes, Cherbourg and Lorient, Le Drian’s hometown in the western region of Brittany.
The French victory came as a surprise – and a stinging blow for hot favourites Japan. It followed a string of commercial successes for the Rafale fighter jet, the pride of France’s armaments industry, which former president Nicolas Sarkozy had spent five years desperately trying to sell – in vain. In February 2015, the Socialist president who ousted Sarkozy finally found a foreign buyer for the Rafale in Egypt’s strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Further preliminary accords with Qatar and India soon followed. Hollande has won plaudits for brokering the deals, but most of the credit has fallen on Le Drian, his oldest and most trusted ally.
Selling the Rafale “was like winning the Tour de France”, Le Drian, a keen cyclist, said last June. Months later he pulled off another coup by persuading Sisi to buy the notorious Mistral warships whose sale to Russia was cancelled amid the Ukrainian crisis. No wonder he has become the darling of French arms manufacturers, drawing praise from unlikely quarters. Serge Dassault, the right-wing senator and chairman of the eponymous military conglomerate which manufactures the Rafale, recently described him as “the best defence minister we have ever had”.
Birth of a salesman
Alain Barluet, the defence specialist for right-wing daily Le Figaro, highlighted Le Drian’s ability to unite the various components of armament bids that are inherently complex and sensitive. In the submarine dossier, as in other recent deals negotiated by the defence minister, “politicians, diplomats and industrialists worked hand in hand,” Barluet told FRANCE 24. “There was none of the bickering and false notes that may have scuppered past talks.”
Though stressing that the quality of French bids was ultimately decisive, the Figaro reporter noted that Le Drian’s own investment in negotiations created a favourable environment. Since his appointment in 2012, the minister has made more than 30 trips to the Gulf, many of them confidential, cultivating personal relationships along the way and bolstering France’s credentials as a reliable partner at a time of perceived American withdrawal from the region. His close rapport with Sisi, whom he hosted for dinner at the Hôtel de Brienne, his Paris residence, proved decisive in the Rafale and Mistral deals.
The same strategy was deployed in Australia, a less familiar territory for French diplomats and arms dealers. Hollande’s state visit to Canberra in November 2014, the first by a French president, signaled a rapprochement between two nations long at odds over French nuclear tests in the Pacific. Le Drian made two trips of his own, touring shipyards in Adelaide, attending World War I commemorations, and decorating Australian veterans with the Légion d’honneur, France’s top distinction. Crucially, he flew in to Washington to secure the neutrality of the Obama administration, which had previously made no secret of its preference for the Japanese bid.
Barluet pointed to the “cohesion and quality” of Le Drian’s cabinet, which he likened to a “commando unit” gathered around the minister. Analysts have noted the contrast between this tightly-knit team and the cacophony of the Hollande administration, riddled with discord, rivalry, and weak leadership. They have also stressed the contrasting fortunes of Le Drian and his ministerial colleagues. Le Drian is the only minister to have enjoyed strong approval ratings throughout Hollande’s presidency. Remarkably, he has achieved this while remaining steadfastly loyal to the most unpopular president in French history.
Of course discipline, loyalty and discretion are typical hallmarks of defence ministries. Geopolitical turmoil and France’s terrorist threat have also conspired to give Le Drian a more prominent role than was expected of the taciturn Breton. He has shepherded France’s many military interventions since 2012, including the widely praised operation that stemmed an Islamist advance across Mali, earning the esteem of US officials who have long complained of Europe’s reluctance to pull its weight in defence. Le Drian has also won praise for his very active role in brokering peace deals and coordinating anti-terrorist efforts in the wider region.
Along the way, the 68-year-old minister has faced his share of controversies. He was accused of undermining European industry when he chose to equip the French army with US-manufactured drones. He has had to deal with a hugely damaging scandal after French peacekeepers were accused of sexually abusing children in the Central African Republic. And there is no hiding from the fact that in arming the likes of Sisi or the Saudi monarchy, Le Drian and his colleagues in government are effectively condoning the brutal repression of dissidents and the flagrant violation of human rights.
“The imperative is preserving exports, markets shares and jobs,” said Barluet, describing Le Drian as a “model student” of economic diplomacy. “If France withdraws from certain markets others will step in, and they may well be less concerned by human rights,” he added. “It is a difficult and risky game.”
Gendarme of the Sahel
While rights activists have blasted the Socialist administration's dealings with dictators, Le Drian has offered one of the few elements of stability – and success – in the Socialists’ rollercoaster time in power. As a defence analyst told left-wing daily Libération, “he has become the official purveyor of good news, the one who wages war, negotiates peace, frees hostages and sells Rafales”. His personal popularity has made him indispensable – and allowed him to almost always get his way.
In 2014, during the fraught process that saw France’s 22 regions reduced to just 14 in an effort to slash administrative costs, he successfully battled to keep Brittany intact and alone, when others – including then-Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault – campaigned for a merger with neighbouring Pays-de-la-Loire, around Nantes. “Brittany has been around for a thousand years, Pays-de-la-Loire for thirty,” Le Drian thundered at the time. The next year he was allowed to run for another term as president of his home region, thereby openly flouting Hollande’s pledge to end the very French practice of holding multiple elected offices. And while Socialists across France were pummelled, the Breton was comfortably reelected, in another reminder that his party simply cannot do without him.
Le Drian's ministry has also been spared much of the austerity cure imposed on the French state, though that owes largely to the security threats France faces at home and abroad. In the wake of last year's terrorist attacks, the defence ministry secured a €3.8 billion budget increase over five years, at a time when virtually all other departments were subjected to another stringent round of belt-tightening.
In stretching military resources, France’s security requirements have also helped carve out an oversized role for Le Drian and his ministry. They have elevated the defence minister to the status of “gendarme of the Sahel”, the vast and largely lawless expanse of arid land that skirts the Sahara desert and is home to an array of drug traffickers and jihadist bands. This has allowed him to overshadow the role of French diplomacy, most notably in Africa, noted Le Figaro's Barluet. “Having such an omnipresent military ministry is, in the long run, worrying,” he added. “A security-based strategy cannot be a substitute for development.”