France’s plans to sell 126 of its premier fighter planes, the Rafales, to India are now being “fast-tracked,” the Diplomat reports. This development must come as a relief to the French government and arms industry, which are not having the best of years due to another big-ticket item: the Mistral amphibious assault ship.Indeed, the plane and the ship are more closely connected than you might imagine, argues Jeff Lightfoot in our upcoming January/February issue. When French officials talk Mistral, they’re often thinking Rafale; Paris is worried that a decision to renege on the sale of Mistrals to Russia will dampen other countries’ desire to buy these planes, which so far remain unsold. France does not want to damage its arms industry’s reputation for reliability by tearing up a contract; the industry is essential not only to France’s economy, but also to its long-held position of independence from Washington’s priorities and plans. Though the country has become more involved in NATO under Sarkozy and remains so under Hollande, its “defense industry underpins France’s traditional Gaullist foreign and defense policy of strategic autonomy,” as Lightfoot puts it.This policy comes at a cost. The defense industry can’t afford to sell its wares only to the French government, and the arms trade is highly competitive nowadays. French firms thus wind up relying on selling products to unreliable or unsavory actors. Or both: this week also brought reports that France is nearing a deal to sell at least 24 Rafales to Qatar. While the French arms firm Dassault has not confirmed the reports, this sale would also assuage the government’s fears about the planes. Along with Delhi, Lightfoot notes, Doha is the other major buyer that France has been eyeing.These sales are not yet finalized, so it’s too early to speculate about how they might sway Hollande’s thinking on the Mistrals. But the arms bind that Lightfoot so ably discusses in his essay (do stay tuned for it) will no doubt outlast this deal, so long as France’s foreign policy remains divided between two “competing priorities”: its larger role in the Western-led world order and its historic (and proud) autonomy.
Plane PlightFrance’s Arms Bind
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