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France’s War in Mali. Was it Started to Sell the New Rafale Fighter Jet?

Finian CUNNINGHAM | 21.02.2013 | 00:00

A $12 billion ‘deal of the century’ with India may point to the real reason why France launched its African war.

* * *

More than a century ago, William Randolph Hearst, one of America’s most formidable newspaper magnates, instinctively realized the maxim: war is good for business; war sells.

In 1897, in the midst of a newspaper circulation battle with his archrival Joseph Pulitzer, Hearst dispatched journalists to Cuba to cover that country’s War of Independence against colonial Spain. There was an expectation that the United States of America would soon become embroiled in what would be its first major overseas conflict. 

Soon after arriving in Cuba, however, Hearst’s front-page artist, Frederic Remington, dampened belligerent expectation when he telegrammed his boss with the message: «There will be no war. I wish to return». An exasperated Hearst is reputed to have replied tersely: «You furnish the pictures. I will furnish the war».

Within months, the USS Maine battleship was mysteriously blown up in Havana Harbor and US President William McKinley declared the beginning of the Spanish-American War. The war would turn the US into an imperialist power expanding its territorial possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific. And it helped build Hearst’s publishing empire, turning him into one of the wealthiest newspaper barons. 

Today, looking at France’s five-week-old military offensive in Africa and a mega international weapons deal in the offing, a refrain of the Hearst maxim could be: «You provide the fighter jets. I will furnish the war».

Only four days after France began bombing the West African country of Mali on 11 January with state-of-the-art Rafale fighter jets, President Francois Hollande and his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, made a rather odd-looking trip to the United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf. 

Such high-profile official visits are usually scheduled months in advance, that is true. So, perhaps Paris felt obliged to fulfill its engagement with the Arab monarchs. But, nevertheless, given the precarious development of France’s «unexpected» war in Mali, only days before, it seemed incongruous that the French president and his top foreign diplomat chose not to postpone their one-day trip to the UAE – especially given that the latter is hardly a major venue on the world political stage. 

Surely, the Arab hosts would have understood if Hollande’s deputy, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault had stepped-in instead, given the president’s presumably pressing war concerns in Africa?

The urgent nature of the French delegation to Abu Dhabi and Dubai soon transpired. From media reports, top of the French agenda in the oil-rich emirates was a certain matter of business: a deal to sell the sheikhs Rafale fighter jets – the same fighter jets that were spearheading France’s «surprise» full-scale military intervention in Mali… 

With remarkable nonchalance, the New York Times reported on 15 January: «By a quirk of timing, Hollande’s trip to the United Arab Emirates is aimed primarily at selling Rafale fighter jets like those that have been involved in bombing Islamist rebel bases in Mali». The paper went on: «France is keen to make its first foreign sale of the Rafale, which has struggled to find buyers, to support a project that has cost tens of billions of euros».

Lucky coincidence strains credulity, as the New York Times and other media reports blithely suggested then of Hollande’s visit to the UAE.

Bear in mind, too, that the Persian Gulf, with its petrodollar-flush kingdoms, is the world’s foremost arms bazaar. The UAE along with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar are some of the biggest customers for the global weapons industry. Figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute show that the UAE is the world’s number one arms buyer per capita. In absolute terms, the United Arab Emirates, with a population of just 8 million, is third in the world behind China and India in ranking for the total value of weapons imported. In other words, an astoundingly lucrative arms market. No wonder Hollande and Foreign Minister Fabius were beating a path to the Gulf. 

During their one-day trip to the UAE, Hollande and Fabius sounded like salesmen, emphasizing the operational capabilities of France’s multi-role combat aircraft. «They have hit all their targets,» the French president declared proudly, as the Rafale jets pounded towns and cities across central and northern Mali. Not mentioned, of course, were the much-underreported deaths of civilians from the French air strikes in its former African colony. 

But, as it turns out, the French sales pitch in the Persian Gulf was only a rehearsal for the real fighter-jet bonanza to come. Last week, one month after Operation Serval began in Mali, the French president flew to India for a high-powered two-day visit joined by a phalanx of officials. This was Hollande’s first overseas visit outside Europe and French-speaking Africa since his election last year. 

On this occasion, Hollande was accompanied in India by Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and four other cabinet members, including Laurent Fabius. Also in tow were more than 60 leaders of French commercial companies. 

Arriving on 14 February and greeted by Indian premier Manmohan Singh, French English-language broadcaster France 24 reported the importance of Hollande’s purpose in no uncertain terms: «The two-day visit will be dominated by trade issues, including a $12-billion contract for Rafale fighter jets, dubbed ‘the deal of the century’ in France».

That contract, expected to be finalized next year, involves the sale of 126 Rafale warplanes to India’s air force by the French manufacturer Dassault, with a possible follow-up purchase of 63 more such fighter jets. The sale, if it goes through, would represent the biggest military aviation purchase ever signed between two countries. 

Putting the value of the Rafale sale to India in perspective, it gives a badly needed boost to the French economy sagging from a 16-year-high 10-11 per cent unemployment rate and a huge trade deficit. If the Rafale deal with India were signed off, that item alone ($12bn) would go a long way to rectifying France’s $90bn trade deficit, secure thousands of French jobs, and not to mention rescuing Hollande from his post-election slump in public opinion polls. 

Again, the importance of France’s combat deployment of the Rafale jets in Mali cannot be underestimated in pushing the French «deal of the century» in India. What better way to convince prospective Indian buyers of the reliable advantages of this expensive hardware than to showcase it in «live action»?

As with the New York Times’ remarkably casual report on the French trip to the UAE, France 24 naively says of Hollande’s Rafale-jet-promotion visit to India: «In a welcome stroke of serendipity for Paris, the [Rafale] planes in question came into the media spotlight only last month when rapid air strikes on Islamist militants in Mali played a vital role in the whirlwind offensive to drive them from the West African nation’s vast northern territory».

Revealingly, France 24 quotes its international affairs correspondent Leela Jacinto commenting: «The French have been trying to sell these very expensive jets to any taker with no success. The mission in Mali allowed them to showcase the Rafale fighter jets».

But the promotional assets of war for selling the French fighter jet most likely pre-dates the current Mali offensive. This tawdry tales goes back to the NATO bombing campaign in Libya during 2011, which culminated in the overthrow and murder of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and erstwhile friend of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. 

Two days after the United Nations Security Council resolution to implement a no-fly zone in Libya, French warplanes were leading the way for NATO in an unprecedented seven-month aerial bombing campaign. Resolution number 1973 was issued on 17 March 2011. On 19 March, French warplanes were bombing Gaddafi forces outside Benghazi – a military escalation that many legal analysts point out was not mandated by the UNSC resolution to set up a no-fly zone. The French piece de resistance in this air campaign was the Rafale fighter jet. 

Tellingly, the usually gung-ho Americans were seen to be lagging behind the Europeans in the Libya operation. Leading the NATO aerial charge, along with the French Rafale jets, were Britain’s new Typhoon fighter bombers. The Typhoon, also known as the Eurofighter, is built by a consortium of British Aerospace and partner companies from Germany, Spain and Italy. It is a close competitor of the French warplane for global markets. 

Before NATO’s bombing spectacle in Libya got underway, the French-made Rafale and Britain’s Typhoon had already been short-listed by India from out of six tenders for the record fighter-jet contract. 

Eight months after NATO’s blitzkrieg on Libya, the government of India announced that it was opting for the Rafale. 

«For Dassault’s Rafale and Eurofighter’s Typhoon, the conflict to unseat Libyan dictator Colonel Muammer Gaddafi helped to decide the biggest jet fighter tender ever,» reported The Financial Times on 7 July 2012. «In fact the Typhoon and Rafale both performed well over Tripoli, bolstering confidence on both sides that they are the better aircraft. In the end, the French [warplanes] were quicker and that, say analysts, helped nudge India’s decision towards Dassault’s Rafale».

That’s not the end of the affair. Even though the French seemed to have clinched the fighter jet mega deal with India last July, the British have not given up hope on snatching the prize away from their rival. 

Indeed, this week, hot on the heels of Hollande’s visit last week to New Delhi, British Prime Minister David Cameron was in India, fronting the biggest overseas trade delegation, according to spokesmen in Downing Street. Accompanying Cameron were four government ministers and representatives of over 100 British industries and businesses, including British Aerospace. 

The main prize for Cameron is to dissuade India from finalising the French fighter jet deal and to award the contract to the British-made Typhoon. 

«PM is last-ditch bid for India fighter deal,» headlined the Financial Times, which added that Cameron was trying to snatch the contract «from under the nose of French president Francoise Hollande». 

The Guardian quoted a Downing Street spokesman as saying: «We respect [sic] the fact that the Indians have chosen their preferred bidder and are currently negotiating with the French. Of course, we will continue to promote Eurofighter [Typhoon] as a great fast jet, not just in India but around the world».

Given the magnitude of the aviation deal with India and other potential buyers, it can be safely assumed that the British have not been «respecting» the French rival, but rather have been lobbying New Delhi intensely ever since the Indian government signaled last year that is was opting for the Rafale. With that pressure bearing down on the French, it is not inconceivable that deployment of its warplane in the challenging environment of Mali would have been a timely reminder to India of the aircrafts’ military capabilities, as they had earlier noted during NATO’s previous war on Libya.

It should be recalled that France’s military intervention in Mali – as with NATO’s bombing of Libya – was not authorized by the UN Security Council. The latter only gave a qualified approval last December for the deployment of an African-led mission to Mali under the auspices of the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS), which was envisaged to take place in September later this year. The French jumped the gun. Why?

The official French rationale for launching its sudden offensive in West Africa – defending Europe’s security from Islamist terrorism – does not quite ring true. After all, the radical militants it is supposedly combating in Mali are the same, or are closely related to, the Mujahideen militants in Libya that the Rafale fighter jets were providing air cover for in 2011. These same elements are also linked to Sunni extremists that France and other NATO states are supporting in Syria to overthrow the Assad government in Damascus. Clearly, the official French rationale applied to Mali does not add up. 

But a «sale of the century» hanging in the balance involving fighter jets worth $12 billion? Now, that does make sense. As William Randolph Hearst might have said: «You furnish the fighter jets. I’ll furnish the war».

Tags: NATO Africa France India Libya Mali UAE Hollande

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