PARIS — France is seeking to reduce its reliance on U.S. approval for French arms exports as Washington withholds clearance for an American component on the French Scalp cruise missile, which blocks the sale of additional Rafale fighter jets to Egypt.
“It is true that we depend on this (U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations) mechanism: We are at the mercy of the Americans when our equipment is concerned,” French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told the Committee for National Defense and Armed Forces of the lower-house National Assembly, according to recently released transcripts from July 4.
France lacks the means to be totally independent of the U.S., she said, adding that French authorities are looking for ways to boost its autonomy. Parly was answering a question from parliamentarian Jean-Jacques Ferrara on the blocked sale of a further batch of Rafale aircraft to Egypt.
“Are we looking to improve the situation?” Parly said. “The answer is yes. In the case raised by Mr. Ferrara, we cannot get the U.S. to lift its opposition to the sale of Scalp missiles."
“What is the solution? That the manufacturer of these missiles, namely MBDA, make the investment in research and technology to be able to make a similar component, which would avoid ITAR," she added." “We are able to do it for this contract because the component can be built within a reasonable amount of time even if the client, naturally, sees it as too long.”
MBDA declined to comment for this story.
The ministry needs to adopt a more systematic approach — one that involves talking to industry as well as the Economy and Finance Ministry “to analyze” French dependence on the U.S., she said.
French authorities need to identify key components at risk due to U.S. refusal of clearance, she added, as well as how France can protect itself from American legislation, which successive U.S. administrations could use in policy shifts in response to factors beyond the control of France.
French President Emmanuel Macron sought to convince his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, to provide clearance for the cruise missile component during the former’s state visit to Washington in April, according to a French defense source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The source also claimed Trump recommended French experts talk to their American counterparts to work out the clearance, but that it didn’t resolve the issue.
The U.S is the world leader in arms exports, accounting for more than a third of total foreign military sales, Parly told parliamentarians.
“That has been the case for more than 70 years, and it looks like that will continue for some time,” she said. European nations will need to buy a little less from America to slightly reduce that supremacy, she said, adding that European states will be able to find European equipment due to initiatives being taken to promote European defense.
Europe could negotiate within the framework of ITAR to be less dependent on the U.S. and promote European autonomy and procurement, she said. “But we know very well that things are not going to change tomorrow,” she added.
Macron has asked for a French equivalent of the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program, which eases the way for government-to-government deals, she said. Client nations prefer that latter approach rather than dealing with companies.
The French Armed Forces and Economics and Finance ministries have drafted a framework agreement that will likely be adopted as the model for an intergovernmental arms contract, backed by a public tender and observing national and European law, she said.
The U.S. has been relaxing its rules on arms exports, with the State Department adopting the Conventional Arms Transfer policy, which eases the way for companies to directly pitch some types of weapons and drones without having to go to Washington for official approval.
The U.S. is expected to rack up foreign arms deals worth about $47 billion this year; in 2017, the State Department approved $42 billion in government-to-government sales. France sold military equipment worth €6.7 billion (U.S. $7.8 billion) last year, half the €13.9 billion in 2016.