France is debating human rights at home while still selling arms to oppressive regimes

As French President Emmanuel Macron faces accusations that he is moving to restrict civil rights in his country and reduce transparency, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s recent state visit to France’s longstanding desire to systematically oppress the countries it sells arms to .

When Sisi arrived in France for a state visit this week, less than a month after prominent human rights workers in Egypt were arrested and beaten with terrorism-related charges following a meeting with French and other European diplomats, Human Rights Watch called for arms sales to Egypt to stop and activists to French President Emmanuel Macron for making a strong statement.

Maybe they had reason to be hopeful. Following the arrest in November, the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing its “deep concern” over developments in the Arab nation. “France maintains a sincere and demanding dialogue with Egypt on human rights issues, including individual cases,” the statement said.

In the end, not only were activists disappointed with Macron’s reception of Sisi, they were outraged. Far from taking a firm line in the abuses and demanding that Egypt do better if it hopes to continue to receive military assistance, Macron went out of his way to separate arms purchases with respect for human rights.

“I will not make terms on defense and economic cooperation with these disagreements [over human rights]”, Macron said at a press conference. “It is more effective to have a policy of demanding dialogue than a boycott that would only reduce the effectiveness of one of our partners in the fight against terrorism.”

“The whole way he framed the human rights debate at the press conference was awful,” said Timothy Kaldas, a foreign colleague at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “Arresting human rights workers and oppressing Egyptians does not fight terrorism. The exact opposite. “

A double standard

Macron’s stance was particularly striking given that his own government has been under fire due to a proposed security law that critics say would restrict civil liberties in France. At the same time, he has defended France’s commitment to free speech in the wake of the killing of a teacher who showed his class caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Macron called the teacher, Samuel Paty, a “silent hero” dedicated to preserving French values.

Macron’s position on Sisi this week was particularly softer than that taken in January 2019, when he told his Egyptian counterpart that security could not be considered separate from human rights and noted that repression endangers stability rather than strengthening it.

“It’s a double standard,” said Rim-Sarah Alouane, a researcher in public law at the University of Toulouse Capitole. “We are in the midst of this hypocrisy about how we should be the land of the Enlightenment, human rights – we should have created human rights in principle – and yet we have no problem doing business with the devil and closing our eyes to what should be most important: the protection of human beings. ”

Kaldas agreed: “[Macron] will be convinced of how much France cares about its values ​​in a context and will be completely reluctant to prioritize these values ​​in its relations with authorities. ”

Marcon has also been shown to be willing to ignore abuses in other parts of the region. When several European countries, including Germany, demanded that arms sales to Saudi Arabia be suspended after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Macron dismissed these concerns as “demagoguery” and said the weapons had nothing to do with the assassination. “I understand the connection to what is happening in Yemen, but there is no connection to Mister Khashoggi,” he said.

Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition that has been involved in a war in Yemen that has had devastating effects on the humanitarian situation there. “The only reason [Macron] “Yemen is quoting the second argument, but then he continues to provide the weapons that are fueling the war in Yemen,” Kaldas said.

The key to sovereignty

France has an interest in averting the issue of rights violations. Arms sales are a major deal for the country, which ranks third in global military exports and comes after the United States and Russia. The French defense sector employs 200,000 people, about 13 percent of the total industrial workforce, according to a report by the country’s parliament.

France is one of the few countries in the world that can independently produce advanced military systems, and arms sales are the key to the defense sector’s survival.

“It is important for France to maintain its own arms industry”, both to be a significant player on the world stage and to be self-sufficient, says Pieter D. Wezeman, senior researcher in the arms and military expenditure program at Stockholm International Peace. Research institute. “To be able to do that, you have to have export clients, because otherwise you can’t afford it.”

As Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly put it in 2018: “Arms exports are our sovereignty’s business model.”

And the industry is growing. Arms sales can vary greatly from year to year, so researchers are looking at longer time periods. Comparing the years 2015-2019 with 2010-2014, French arms exports grew by 72 percent, which corresponds to 7.9 percent of the global arms market. Over the past decade, the Middle East has accounted for about 48 percent of French exports, says Guy Anderson, deputy director of the Industry and Markets division at Jane’s, publisher of Jane’s Defense Weekly.

“France has been very productive in providing weapons to a wide range of people,” Wezeman said.

It has been known that France also ignores arms embargoes. In his autobiography “No Room for Small Dreams”, the late Israeli politician Shimon Perez said that France secretly sold weapons to Israel as early as the 1950s, when few nations would do so. And it was the French who gave Israel its nuclear weapons capability, Perez wrote.

Illegal arms sales have continued. The French found ways to supply weapons to the apartheid regime in South Africa despite restrictions on such exports, and press reports say that military material found in Libya in 2019 showed that France had violated the arms embargo there.

“France is one of the least accurate arms dealers on earth,” says Kaldas. “Even the United States is a little more restrictive when it comes to their arms sales.”