Like the opening phrases of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, must feel in these past few weeks that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” When it comes to selling things that kill, France is the rising star, when it comes to those that save lives, such as vaccines, its sun has been on a long decline. But then this is the president of “en meme temps” (at the same time).
In its most recent report on world arms sales, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute calculated that French arms exports have gone up by some 72 per cent over a decade. The icing on the cake for Macron was the Greek government’s signature this January on a €2.5bn contract for 18 of the Dassault Rafale, France’s jet fighter. The planes will be delivered, some secondhand from the French air force, with a brace of missiles capable of hitting targets over 300 miles away.
Why, is all one can ask? Don’t bother asking what Macron was thinking when he gave the go-ahead for those missiles. What mattered in the Elysée was the joy that such exports bring to patriotic hearts in Paris. “2021 could be a very good Rafale year on the commercial front for Dassault Aviation, and for the whole of the French military aviation industry. It should permit this national sovereign industry to get through the economic turbulence created by Covid-19 a bit more calmly,” announced a New Year story in the business journal La Tribune.
The efforts that the vigilant senior government officials and politicians running the French state under Macron’s command put into saving the country’s capacity to produce weaponry like the Rafale is unrivalled.
As the final tweaks were being made to the Greek contract, French business commentators were warning that there would have been “certain catastrophe” had the corporate vultures of the US conglomerate Teledyne Technologies managed to quietly buy up a business, Photonis, down in the south of France in Brive-la-Gaillarde (“You will let yourself be quickly conquered by the sweetness of life in this dynamic town,” says the company website).
Teledyne was hoping the €500m bid to purchase Photonis, which produces low-light detection technologies, would make it a leading player in night-vision equipment – which special forces on the ground use when guiding those Rafales with their missiles toward an enemy target.
But Macron and his guys are not to be tricked that easily. The French government formally banned Teledyne’s purchase of Photonis. For two-thirds of the price offered by Teledyne, the Photonis was then quickly scooped up by a rising French holding company.
The strategic industrial and military interests of France were saved. Macron would not have to go cap in hand to beg at the door of some American company more loyal to its Wall Street bankers and the Pentagon than anyone else, before he could send French troops, drones and planes out across the Sahara.
Patriotism and killing
Killers who use augmented vision sights on their helmets, long-range cameras on drones, heat-seeking sensors on their planes, make mistakes. That is particularly the case when their responses to the blurry, uncertain images on their screens are further augmented by the assumptions and prejudices about the enemy they think they have spotted.
On 3 January, a French airstrike on Bounti, a village in central Mali’s Mopti region, killed 19 people. The French military continues to claim that what they hit was a gathering of armed Islamist fighters. A French-operated MQ-9 Reaper drone had filmed two men on a motorbike joining the target group, so the French military argues. Its film showed only men were present. What more proof could anyone want? Witnesses on the ground, including survivors, however, continue to assert that the victims were civilians who were attending a wedding celebration.
The drones used in the attack, 13 of them, were bought in 2013, six months after French troops were rushed to Mali on the grounds that columns of Islamist fighters were advancing from the north toward the capital, Bamako, in the south. A former French colony, Mali has been plagued with corruption, military coups and deep ethnic divisions for all of the six decades of its independence. Most recently, the fighting – Islamist attacks, Malian army reprisals, communal violence, French air raids – has focused on Mopti.
For further background on what is happening in this part of Mali, a good source is the reports from Doctors Without Borders, one of the few neutral bodies operating there as here. It helps one understand why some of those camped out in the passageways, under the bridges, or anywhere else that affords a bit of shelter – including the arches under the slip roads on to the Boulevard Periphérique around Paris, not much more than a stone’s throw from the futuristic HQ of the French armed forces – are young men whose country of origin is Mali, some of them from Mopti region.
Opened back in 2015, the military complex at Balard houses rooms where giant computer screens let generals zero in on the actions of individual soldiers of the French Operation Barkane in Mopti. Was it there that the order ‘Go, Go, Go!’ was given for the two Dassault Mirage 2000 jets that targeted the group at Bounti with three bombs?
There are calls from human rights groups in Mali for an independent inquiry. A human rights team attached to the UN military force in the region is trying to conduct one. The key evidence they need is the photographs and films held at Balard and used by the commanders of the raid, reviewed by defence minister Florence Parly (the one who signed the Rafale deal in Athens), but denied to anyone else.
Like the evidence for those jihadist columns. The French military has never published the supposed aerial observation videos on which their presence in the country was originally based.
One can accept that, at times, there is a logic behind the idea of defence secrets. No army fights a battle while telling its enemy what its weaknesses are or what its next moves will be. But the denial of information is not directed toward keeping Islamist commanders ignorant of French military intentions. The purpose is to keep the French public in the dark, whether it is on the atrocities committed in Mali, by the French or their local allies, or the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.