Two months ago, the entire delegation of French MEPs from the liberal Renew Europe group, save one, voted against greater oversight over weapons exports.
The amendment was part of a larger report on arms to enforce EU-wide guidelines on a multi-billion euro industry that supplies weapons to countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Also known as the EU Common Position, the guidelines are legally-binding rules to make sure innocent people are not killed by European-made weapons.
The rules are enforced by national authorities in each member state – with some taking it more seriously than others.
The European Parliament had taken a long shot initiative to impose new EU legislation to boost oversight. It lost by some 50 votes.
Hannah Neumann, a German Green MEP who drafted a report on arms exports, says France is one of the laxest when it comes to following the EU Common Position.
“In Germany, you have a government representative that is neutral towards the defence industry. In France, you have the defence industry sitting at the table,” she pointed out.
That French liberal MEPs, many of them from president Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party, voted against greater EU oversight is not a surprise. Pascal Durand was the only French MEP in the group that voted in favour, citing reasons linked to his pacifism.
France has sold billions of euros worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), often including maintenance contracts that stretch over years.
Yet both these countries have been repeatedly called out for possible war crimes in Yemen, where over 12,000 civilians have been killed in targeted attacks since war broke out in 2014.
The fighting in Yemen has displaced millions of people, and triggered a famine that is said to have killed 85,000 children in a span of three years.
The disparity poses questions on how the French government can continue to supply and sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while at the same time sticking to international humanitarian law as required by the EU.
That disparity is also now being thrown into an even sharper relief following fresh evidence that the French government is well aware of the risks its weapons pose to civilians – while at the same time still training those behind the trigger.
Mirage jets, Caesar howitzers
The evidence points to the use of the French-made Mirage 2000-9 by the UAE in Libya. The fighter jet is suspected of destroying a migrant detention centre outside Tripoli last year, killing dozens.
It also points to the French-built Caesar self-propelled howitzer, an advanced long-range indirect-fire weapon system purchased by the Saudis.
The Caesars are produced by the French government-owned weapons manufacturer, Nexter Systems. Some 48 were stationed at the border with Yemen by the Saudi Arabian army in late 2018.
Yet a leaked internal document from France’s military intelligence agency, the DRM, warned of the risks against civilians in Yemen posed by the Caesars already in 2018.
“The population concerned by potential artillery fire: 436,370 people,” notes the document, dated 25 September, 2018.
The same document says the Caesars also play a role in supporting “loyalist troops and Saudi armed forces in their progression into Yemeni territory.”
The following year artillery shells from the coalition forces slammed into a Yemeni market near the Saudi border, killing 89 civilians.
And in September, a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council on Yemen, warned that such transfers of weapons only help to perpetuate the conflict.
“But for the arms trade and the arms transfers, the war would not be persisting the way it is, the war would not continue ravaging the people of Yemen in the way it has,” said Ardi Imseis, one of the authors of the report.
These facts are already in the public domain.
But what is new is an inside look into the invisible link between the French weapons industry and their clients in Saudi Arabia. And more evidence has emerged of French-built Mirage fighter jets being used in Libya.
In partnership with EUobserver, journalists at Lighthouse Reports along with Arte and Mediapart reveal how French companies continue training mission-critical skills to Saudi soldiers despite the raging war in Yemen.
Among them is French majority state-owned DCI Groupe, which is carrying out artillery training for members of the Saudi Arabian National Guard at a military school in Draguignan, a town in southern France.
The guard is one of the three major branches of the Saudi military, whose duties include protecting the royal family and its interests.
French multinational Thales and a French branch of the Swiss-based RUAG are also involved in training the guard, offering the simulation equipment needed to operate the Caesars that could potentially target almost half million people in Yemen.
DCI Groupe had been training the guard in Draguignan since at least 2016. In early 2018, they put online a video session where members of the Saudi guard are seen deploying a Caesar self-propelled howitzer.
Those sessions are thought have taken place in 2017, and involve operating artillery platforms by using a Thales-made control-and-command system known as ATLAS.
For its part, RUAG supplied an artillery and mortar-fire observation simulator.
The Caesars have provoked outrage among the French public. Last year, a Saudi cargo vessel suspected of carrying weapons was prevented from docking at a French port following a public backlash.
Disclose, a media outlet, revealed the cargo ship was expected to load munitions for Caesar howitzers. It also revealed that France is set to deliver the Saudis well over 100 Caesars between now and 2023.
But the French government maintains such exports are both carefully assessed, and comply with its international obligations.
‘International commitments met’
A spokesperson from the prime minister’s office said a case-by-case analysis is carried out to ensure exports to Saudi Arabia are only used to shore up its own security and fight terrorism.
“Risks against civilian populations are systematically assessed, in accordance with French international commitments,” he said.
He further noted that any and all training sessions cited by the investigation do not contravene France’s international commitments and are subject to additional licensing agreements.
The French position stands in sharp contrast to other EU states, however.
Belgium in August suspended arms export licenses meant for the Saudi Arabian National Guard, over fears such weapons may end up being used in Yemen or even for internal repression.
Alonside Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands have also imposed arms-export restrictions to varying degrees on the Saudi-led coalition. And Sweden was among the first to take a harder line, suspending Saudi contracts back in 2015.
But training and maintenance are areas not covered by the EU Common Position, a loophole that MEP Neumann says should be sealed.
“I would say it should be covered by the Common Position, and increasingly when we call for an arms embargo,” she said.
But France also appears to be stretching the bounds of violating international laws for maintaining the Mirage 2000 fighter jets sold to the United Arab Emirates.
UN investigators cite the plane as the likely culprit behind the deaths of at least 53 people and 130 wounded in an airstrike at the Tajoura Detention Center outside Tripoli last July.
Now satellite imagery from June 10th of this year shows a plane with similar features stationed at the Gamal Abdel Nasser airbase in Tobruk, eastern Libya. Other images from inside Egypt, captured in May and last August, offer even greater clarity.
Like the Mirage 2000 planes operated by the Emirates, its nose is painted in a light-grey colour. These planes appear to be found in the captured images. The colour distinction is important because Egypt, which is the only other country in the region that flies the Mirage 2000, colours the nose black.
France had sold the Emirate planes in the 1990s but still provides maintenance through Dassault and Thales, in light of the possible war crimes committed by the Emirates in Libya.
The companies did not respond to media inquiries over the affair but the French government maintains the contracts still “respect international obligations.”
This investigation is supported by the arms-tracking newsroom of Lighthouse Reports and their media partners Arte and Mediapart.