What if France had Concluded a Major Defense Sale with Qaddafi?
Whether through boldness, hubris or political opportunism French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ensured that France has been out in front regarding the Libyan uprising. The conflict between forces loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and rebels opposed to his regime has offered the Sarkozy government the chance to once again burnish France’s credentials as a diplomatic force in the world.
The French relationship with the Arab Maghreb is steeped in colonial history and, for the Sarkozy government, embarrassments. One of the most notorious such blemishes relates to Tunisia, where French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie was tied up in a series of diplomatic faux-pas’ with the ousted regime of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine ben-Ali. These occurred at a time of low public support for Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party and in particular for the president himself.
Then there is Libya, where France does not have the colonial baggage it carries in Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco. But as he did with the former leaderships in Egypt and Tunisia, Sarkozy appeared uncomfortably cozy with the Qaddafi regime, inviting the Libyan leader to Paris in December 2007 and even granting him permission to pitch his tent on the grounds of the French presidential residence, the Elysee.
So it came as a surprise to some of France’s allies that Paris boldly strode ahead of everyone else when the Libyan crisis erupted. With the opportunity to divest his presidency from the sense of tawdriness surrounding his past relationships with North African leaders and to alter the perception of slow-footedness created in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, Sarkozy embarked on an aggressive – some might say impulsive – course with Libya.
First the French president broke with diplomatic practice and officially recognized the leadership of the Libyan rebels, the National Libyan Council, as the country’s legitimate government, thereby making France the first nation to do so. He then became the first to advocate for military strikes against Qaddafi’s forces and, once United Nations resolution 1973 was passed on March 17, was the first to send combat aircraft into action.
But his position that Libya’s rebels are the true representatives of the country has left France at odds with some of its allies and imposed complications on what would otherwise be a limited engagement. In essence, regime change in Libya is the ultimate objective and the fate of Sarkozy’s stance rests in the hands of rebel forces on the ground.
An interesting and somewhat overlooked aspect of the French intervention in Libya is Paris’ recent effort to regain its previous strong foothold in the Libyan arms market. Before a U.N. embargo was imposed on Libya in the early 1990s France had been a favorite supplier of Qaddafi. Through the 1970s and early 1980s Libya purchased an assortment of French material, including Dassault Mirage F1 fighter jets, La Combattante armed patrol boats, Super Frelon heavy transport and Alouette III light utility helicopters, as well as French missiles.
The lifting of the U.N. embargo offered France an opportunity to reestablish its defense supplying bona fides to Qaddafi’s regime under the presumption that modernizing an aging arsenal would be a Libyan priority. From France’s perspective locking down a position as a principal Libyan defense supplier would help to halt the erosion of the French share of the global defense market, which had tumbled from 13 percent in the late 1990s to 6 percent by 2009.
Although a limited market in comparison to the energy-rich Gulf Arab nations, Libya presented France with a ripe opportunity to clinch military hardware contracts and secure its first export contract for the Dassault Rafale combat aircraft. The inability to conclude a foreign deal for the new-generation Rafale had become something of an embarrassment when in 2007 the Moroccan government opted for the American F-16 in what had been expected to be a French export victory.
The failure of the Rafale on the export market was not the only concern. France’s renowned defense industry – nurtured by the government through generous state orders and aggressive foreign sales efforts tied to diplomatic outreach – is not immune to the sting of France’s fiscal pressures. With a growing public debt and budgetary pressures French defense equipment programs – the same ones used to feed domestic industry – will begin to feel a pinch. Therefore foreign orders are increasingly crucial as a revenue source for France’s defense manufacturing sector.
Aware of this impending reality Sarkozy carried on his predecessor’s push to rebuild the Franco-Libyan defense trade. But much like his relationships with the region’s leaders, this effort has occasionally been clouded in controversy.
A $400 million arms deal with Tripoli was reported in August 2007 on the heels of the release of Bulgarian medics who had been convicted in Libya of infecting children with HIV. That deal allegedly involved Milan anti-tank missiles and radio communications equipment. It also left the Sarkozy government scrambling to point out that there was no direct link between the arms agreement and the freeing of the Bulgarian medics.
Although Qaddafi reportedly had the Rafale aircraft, Tiger attack helicopter and other high-end ware on his long-term shopping list, French arms sales to Libya between 2005 and 2009 ultimately amounted to less than $300 million (EUR210.15 million, or $295 million). No new sales for a major French military platform – such as frigates, armored personnel carriers, attack helicopters or combat aircraft – were ever reached.
Thus the question might be asked as to whether events would have played out similarly if such an expansive defense sales agreement with Qaddafi had been secured. For instance, if Libya had bought expensive items such as the Rafale or the FREMM multipurpose frigate would Sarkozy have been as eager to push all his chips to the center of the table regarding direct military intervention?
Certainly France’s ultimate position on the actions of the Qaddafi regime would be unlikely to differ. And Libyan resistance against allied intervention would be nary as effective as it has already proven to be. Deliveries of the Rafale, for example, would have taken years to complete and even if fully equipped prior to the current intervention Libyan pilots and crews would be novices in comparison to their French and NATO peers. Furthermore, French forces would be well aware beforehand of the strengths and weaknesses inherent in the Rafale and would know how best to combat their own aircraft.
But would Paris have been as eager to lead a coalition against one of their leading customers?
In the end the answer is probably “yes” since for Sarkozy the domestic side of the equation seems to have outweighed all else. French support for military action is – at this early stage – strong, and Sarkozy can play upon the national idea of France as a crucial actor on the global stage in the hopes it benefits his sagging poll numbers.
If the rebels ultimately emerge victorious then Sarkozy’s actions will have proven to be shrewd. And if a new government ultimately buys the Rafale or any other expensive French military hardware than his efforts will not only have been deft, they will truly have been a coup.
Photo by Jerry Gunner.
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