Armament. “Made in France” War in Yemen

After the United States, France is the second arms supplier to the Saudi-Emirati coalition involved in the Yemeni civil war since 2015. Who equips and repairs the fighter planes used by the Coalition? Where are their pilots trained? Where are the bombs that fall on Yemeni markets and homes manufactured? This is an investigation into the big French firms that profit from this war, with the backing of the French government.

Bourges, 4 July 2022. Mouth of a 155 mm Caesar gun in the Nexter armament factory
Guillaume Souvant/AFP

In seven years, the Yemeni conflict has killed 110,000 people. Among them nearly 13,000 civilians according to figures provided by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). Ever since March 2015, when the Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, stepped in to fight against the Houthist rebels, the French government has never ceased to deny its involvement in the conflict. “We have not recently sold any weapons that might be used in the Yemeni conflict” or so Florence Parly, Armed Forces Minister claimed in January 2019 on the public radio station France Inter. A few months later, on 15 April 2019, an inquiry conducted by the website Disclose proved the contrary, basing its revelations on a report from the Direction of Military Intelligence (DRM). Not only have French planes, helicopters, tanks, and canons taken part in the Coalition’s offensives, but these weapons may well have been used against civilian populated areas.

Former Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also went out of his way to maintain the official version. On 13 February 2019, appearing before the National Assembly’s rather passive Foreign Affairs Committee, he insisted that France “has supplied nothing to the Saudi air force.” A mendacious assertion which deliberately ignored the delivery to Saudi Arabia of laser tracing and designation tools manufactured by Thales at least until 20171, as well as the thousands of missiles “made in France” supplied to the military coalition.

In 2019 alone, the French government authorised 47 munitions export contracts for torpedoes, rockets, missiles and other explosive material, totalling one billion euros for Saudi Arabia and another 3.5 billion euros worth for the United Arab Emirates. The following year, in 2020, these authorisations leapt by 40% for Saudi Arabia and 25% for the Emirates. These figures correspond to the number of export licences granted by the highly opaque Interministerial Commission for the Study of War Material Exports (CIEEMG). They enable us to evaluate the cravings of French industrialists and their warring clients, even if at the end of the day, the contracts signed – and kept secret – are often for lesser amounts.

Until now, the French government refuses to reveal the detailed list of weapons supplied to each foreign country. But its public reports, presented to parliament each year, do nonetheless provide some indication of the volume of trade with the two most interventionist countries in the Near-East, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates, respectively the third and fifth-best clients of the French armaments industry. Thus, we do know that between 2015 and 2021, France supplied military equipment, munitions, and maintenance for about 9 billion euros to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two leaders of the Arab coalition set up to support the Yemeni government against the Houthi rebels.

French arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia and the UAE since 2014
French arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia and the UAE since 2014
Source: Reports to Parliament on Arms Exports (2014-2021)

French public opinion is finding it increasingly hard to swallow the contradiction between its government’s rhetoric and its actions in the matter of human rights. In Marseilles and Le Havre dockers have refused to load shipments of arms for Saudi Arabia. In Parliament, MPs and NGOs have demanded the appointment of commissions of inquiry and the suspension of exports to the Arabian coalition. Today most French people would approve these measures. According to a poll commissioned in 2018 by the NGO, SumOfUs, 75% favour the suspension of weapons deliveries to the countries involved in the war in Yemen, and a tighter control of arms exports. The French secret services have begun keeping a discreet eye on the use of French weapons on foreign battlefields, especially in Yemen, via satellite intelligence gathering. Because of pressure from the media, weapons deliveries to Saudi Arabia finally began to dwindle in 2020. But they still go on. And this activity remains completely opaque. In the absence of any democratic debate, that war is still being fuelled close to home.

In the name of Orient XXI, I wanted to draw a map showing the location of the French companies that have been profiteering from the escalation of the war in Yemen and from what is now the world’s most dramatic humanitarian crisis. “Once it is established that a company “inhabits” a given place, its role should be known to its neighbours and discussed by them. This is already the case for certain chemical or food-processing industries,“writes L’Observatoire des armements in its 2022 report on the armaments industries in the Auvergne Rhône-Alpes region.”Why should it not hold true for armaments and security industries?" Top secret classification cannot be a permanent excuse for impunity.

Three large French firms are implicated in a war which has killed some 13,000 civilians in seven years: Thales which equips fighter planes and supplies munitions, the Franco-British missile manufacturer MBDA, and the aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation which ensures the maintenance of the Mirage 2000 and has landed record-breaking contracts with the Emirates. Their activities are concentrated in three French regions, Centre, Nouvelle-Aquitaine and Île-de-France. On June 1, 2022, four NGOs filed charges against these three French groups for “complicity in war crimes in Yemen.” The opening of a judicial inquiry against arms merchants of that importance would be a first. The only precedent concerns a medium-size French firm, Exxelia, which for four years now has been scrutinised by French magistrates prosecuting crimes against humanity. Components of its missiles were found on the Gaza Strip after a murderous bombardment in 2014.

In Google maps, see the locations of French firms producing the armaments used in the Yemen war.

“While companies may have an export permit issued by the French government, the decision to export or not is theirs to take, and they are obliged by law to make sure their exports are not going to contribute to violations of human rights, if such violations are known and documented,” says Camille Lavite, of the European Centre for Constitutional Rights and Human Rights (ECCHR). The European Parliament and the Group of International experts on Yemen have demanded several times the suspension of weapons deliveries to the Coalition, because of their utilisation against civilians. Solicited in the name of Orient XXI, the Thales group puts all the blame on the French government, the company’s principal shareholder. “Thales complies strictly with the current legislation and constantly improves its internal export monitoring procedures,” the company’s press office assured us. In 2020, the Thales management undertook, alongside CEOs from all over the world “to collaborate with the United Nations for the respect of human rights”. Dassault and MBDA did not wish to reply to our questions.

Twenty five thousand air strikes

As Louise Boswinkel of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington points out, the war in Yemen takes place mainly in the air. Never in recent history has a conflict required so many missiles, laser-guided bombs, artillery shells, drones, and air defence systems. Since 26 March 2015 when the intervention of the Arab Coalition began, the reference body in the matter, the Yemen Data Project, has counted 25,000 air strikes. From the very first weeks of their intervention, the Coalition managed to destroy most of their military targets.

To hunt down Houthis who mingle with the population, the Coalition also attacks farms, markets, health centres or watering sites. Two thirds of the civilian casualties recorded by ACLED up to 2019 were killed by Coalition bombings.

The cease-fire declared by Saudi Arabia on 30 March 2022 did not put an end to either the strikes carried out as part of its operation “Restore Hope” or to the Houthi attacks. In five months ‘time, nearly 400 Yemeni civilians were killed and Riyadh’s Coalition carried out nearly 200 air strikes, also according to ACLED.

In the meantime, France has been helping the Emirates replenish their stock of missiles. On 3 December, the missile manufacturer MBDA landed a contract worth two billion euros to equip 80 planes built by Dassault for the United Arab Emirates. Even if these Rafales will not be ready for several years, the MBDA missiles will be available for immediate use by the Mirage fighter planes already deployed in Yemen. For the French presidency, this “historic” contract is “a major achievement in the strategic partnership between the two countries”.

MBDA is a group co-owned by Airbus, the British BAE Systems and the Italian Leonardo and is the Coalition’s main European supplier. The Emirati air force2 is equipped with Black Shaheen cruise missiles (a variant of the autonomous long-distance cruise system called “Scalp” or “Storm Shadow”) and features “high targeting accuracy based on an advanced navigation system” to quote the manufacturer’s sales pitch. Also used by the Saudi army, these missiles are assembled in central France and are one of the Coalition’s major assets. Carrying 400 kilos of explosives, they are capable of destroying a building in a single strike and can be fired by any of the Coalition’s fighter plans, the Typhoon, the Tornado and their Mirage 2000.

Missiles in central France

Since the Storm Shadow/SCALP missile is a Franco-British program, the production of its components is divided between industrial sites across the Channel and others at Bourges, where MBDA employs a workforce of 1,700. Thus, the Prefecture of the department of the Cher is where the electronic and digital systems equipping these missiles are made. It is also where their munitions are tested – once they are assembled – in laboratories which simulate different flight conditions (subjecting the missiles to extreme heat or cold for example). It is also in Bourges that PMR ASB Aérospatiale Batteries manufactures the thermo-batteries required to propel these missiles over the 400 km which may separate their launcher from their target.

The Saudi arsenal, as listed by IISS also includes one of the banner bombs in the MBDA catalogue, the Brimstone, which can be launched from either plane or tank and is manufactured in the Manchester suburb of Lostock. The workers in Bourges were also called upon to manufacture the first testing bench for Brimstones which were then returned to England ready for use. In Bourges and the nearby town of La Chapelle Saint-Ursin are located two Nexter factories producing a wide variety of artillery munitions. At the height of the civil war in Yemen, the Saudis ordered 120 mm shells to equip their Leclerc tanks. In 2016 Nexter planned to sell 53,000 shells and 50,000 explosive components – “artillery rockets” in military lingo –, according to a note from the Secrétariat général de la défense et de la sécurité nationale (SGDSN) dated June 1, 2016, revealed by Disclose. At La Ferté Saint Aubin, south of Orléans, a medium-sized firm, Junghans, 49% owned by Thales, was meant to supply 41,500 “rockets” in the form of 155 mm artillery munitions to the Saudi National Guard, equipped with French Caesar canons of that diameter. The total amount of these contracts was 350 million euros. Despite the reluctance of certain diplomats at the time, the government gave the go head.

In that year 2016, Nexter’s order book was so full that its production capacity was insufficient. To satisfy their Emirati clients on time, shells had to be taken from the stock reserved for the French cavalry.

MBDA, Nexter and their subcontractors employ 5,000 workers in greater Bourges, i.e., 10% of the jobs in that urban area. The missile manufacturer MBDA sits on the jury of the local contest among National Defence start-ups, called “Def’ Start,” and even sponsored the event in its second year. As Irène Félix, Chairwoman of the Metropolitan District, Bourges Plus, explains, “After a period of reconstruction at the end of the nineties, hirings in the Defence sector have risen sharply over the past five years due to orders from the French army and other countries.” The accusations of complicity in war crimes aimed at our national champion do not seem to worry this official, elected on a list “miscellaneous left.” The defence industries are perfectly familiar with the limits of their activity,“she answered us.”The local authority supports the local industrial fabric but does not interfere with diplomatic issues which are managed by the Government."

Two hundred kilometres from Bourges, in the department of the Loire, is located Nexter, a company 50% government-owned and one of the heavyweights of local industry. In Roanne, where it employs 1400 workers, one of its factories produces César canons, of which one of the biggest purchasers is Saudi Arabia. Between 2018 and 2021, 42 of these were supplied to the Saudi Kingdom.

Under President François Hollande, international law and Yemeni lives did not weigh nearly as much as French economic interests in the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Arms Exports (CIEEMG). During the summer of 2016, 18 months after the start of the Saudi-Emirati operation, the Armed Forces Ministry dismissed the concerns of Foreign Ministry diplomats who worried about “the risk of non-conformity with our international commitments.” It was quite impossible to call into question our contracts with countries that represent “nearly one third of our exports”.

Missile engines from Toulouse

When Emmanuel Macron took power in 2017, the Hollande doctrine remained in effect with a few exceptions. During his first term of office, the Inter-ministerial Committee issued at least 77 munitions export licences for Saudi Arabia3 and 87 for its Emirati ally. Only a handful of contracts fell by the wayside. At La Ferte-Saint-Audin, however, a Thales munitions factory had to stop all deliveries to Saudi Arabia after the summer of 2021. “Government services warned Thales that its export licence; valid until June 2020, would not be renewed; so, La Ferte workers hurried to complete the ongoing Arabian orders” we were told by an employee with Thales’ defence branch, a group in which the French government hods 26%. This contract, worth a few million euros, is not crucial for that factory in the Loiret. Seventy percent of its business is provided by the French armed forces. Before the new regulations, this factory, which belonged to TDA Armements before it was taken over by Thales, supplied Saudi Arabia with 120 mm artillery shells.

Saudi soldiers fire artillery towards the border with Yemen in Najran, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, April 21, 2015.
Saudi soldiers fire artillery towards the border with Yemen in Najran, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, April 21, 2015.
Hasan Jamali/AP

The Centre-Val de Loire is not the only French region contributing to the war effort of the Saudi-Emirati coalition. In Toulouse, a Safran Power Unit factory assembles the components of the powerful TR60 engine, specially designed to propel Storm Shadow/Scalp missiles. “Its dependability and operational performances have been demonstrated on the ground in many conflicts” the number one European manufacturer of turboreactors boasts on its website. How many Yemeni farms and houses has Safran helped to destroy? The company failed to answer us. “That is no concern of ours” was how Jean-Paul Lopez avoided the issue. He is the President of the Friends of the Historical Heritage of Microturbo, the family-owned company which invented the missile’s propulsion motor and was bought out by Safran.

And yet several years after delivery, the manufacturer keeps in close touch with its clients. As MBDA spells it out in a job offer, “when a client buys an arms system, he must be trained in the use and maintenance of his system. MBDA must also go to the client for levels of maintenance which are beyond the latter’s responsibility or merely to repair or change equipment that is out of order.”

Monitoring and updating visits are necessary at least every two years at present, according to our information, MBDA continues to ensure maintenance of the stocks of Black Shaheen missiles. It regularly dispatches French and British teams to its base on the Abu Dhabi coast road. Thales workers also shuttle back and forth to repair radar systems and chassis-mounted surface-to-air “Crotale” missiles purchased by the Saudis and Emiratis. Each of these countries owns over two hundred of these. When the changes needed are too complex, the components are returned to the little town of Fleury-Les-Aubrais in the Loiret, where Thales has set up customer support for its munitions.

Training and after-sales services

Another beacon of the French armaments industries permanently present in the Emirates: Dassault. And for good reason: that little Gulf monarchy was the first foreign purchaser of Mirage fighter planes in 1986, two years after their commissioning in the French air force. Today the Emirates have 56 of these aircraft, among them the latest model, the 2000-9. Purchased at the end of the 2000s, these are equipped with radar and state-of-the art technology. Even more than the missiles, these aircraft are chock-full of electronics and must constantly be monitored and updated by Dassault engineers, even during the war in Yemen, as these fighter planes are vital components of the Emirati air fleet.

An unfailing partner of the Emirates for the last forty years, the French aircraft manufacturer not only trains local crews in Abu Dhabi but also brings trainees to its site at Argonay in Haute-Savoie where they learn to repair the Mirage 2000.

French firms earn comfortable incomes from their after-sales activities. The contract for the modernisation of the Emirati Mirages, signed in 2019 with the approval of the French government, brought Dassault 418 million euros. The company’s CEO, Éric Trappier promised to “meet the Emirates’ operational requirements.” In other words, French engineers would improve the radar and target-detection systems to enable Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed, president of the United Arab Emirates, to pursue his military interventions in, among other places, Yemen, and Libya. Also in 2019, the Emirates sent their air force to support the East-Libyan autocrat, Khalifa Haftar. Among the casualties there were 44 migrants, killed when a detention facility was bombed by a Mirage 2000. The attack sparked outrage around the world and was condemned in a report by UN experts to the Security Council.

In 2015, the year when the Arab Coalition decided to go bomb Yemeni villages, some thirty Emirati soldiers came to Latresne, near Bordeaux, to form the largest French “campus” for the country’s aero spatial industry. Another class is expected in 2023, when the school will host several hundred trainees from the Emirates who will succeed one another over a period of several years to gain experience in the maintenance of the future squadrons of Rafales ordered at the end of 2021. The trainees may even go to check on the progress made with their future aircraft being assembled at Mérignac across the Garonne River. Is training an army accused of war crimes compatible with the values of a school financed with public funds? The director of Aerocampus, Anne-Catherine Guitard disputes our questioning: “We do not train military strategists or pilots, but aircraft maintenance technicians”. When Dassault sells Rafales, it also sells a training package “made in France,” at Laresne. On the “aero-campus” created by the Nouvelle-Aquitaine regional authority and by the sector’s industrialists – especially Dassault and Airbus – the cost of the training offered foreign clients, whether Emirati, Qatari or Indian, serves to finance the aeronautics degrees of 350 French students. This being the case, it is hard to look down on the generosity of those Gulf customers. “I cannot see myself turning down requests which have been approved by the [armed forces] Minister and the President of the Republic”, the director explains.

As for the Saudis, they prefer the more northerly Lorraine climate. The French government as persuaded them to come and learn to handle their cannon turrets at Commercy, a former military base, uninhabited since the departure of a French regiment. A centre especially built for the Saudis with public funds was meant to boost local employment. Of the hundred jobs promised, scarcely twenty were created according to a joint investigation conducted by Amnesty International and La Revue dessinée.

The CGT in favour of a moratorium on arms sales

To justify their contracts with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, industrialists have no qualms about pretending to preserve jobs in France. However, this argument is far from being ratified by trade unions. Inside Thales, the CGT has been agitating for years in favour of a moratorium on the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates for their war in Yemen. Since besides the bombs manufactured in central France, Thales is also the official supplier of targeting tools or “Damocles pods,” for the Saudi and Emirati air forces. These advanced optical systems serve to guide the strikes of fighter planes and avoid collateral casualties. Except when civilians are present on the designated targets. As in the case of the bus carrying schoolchildren, blown to bits by a Coalition strike in August 2013. Saudi Arabia has bought some sixty French pods, the last of them delivered in 2017, to equip its Typhoon and Tornado aircraft (according to the SIPRI). Likewise for the Mirages in the Emirati fleet. And since 2017, Thales has continued to ensure their maintenance.

All these nacelles – of which the Emirates have just placed an order for the latest version, the “Talios” – were produced at Elancourt, a town of 23,000, in the Yvelines. Just 40 kilometres from Paris. There, Thales has its top-secret military research facilities covering an area of 40,000 square metres. This huge site, where over 1,000 engineers and high-level technicians are gathered, is also the birthplace of the Spyranger drones for which the Saudi National Guard placed an order some months ago. These contracts are said to amount several hundred million euros. Which is not really a source of pride for Gregory Lewandowsky, CGT coordinator within the Thales Group. “Just because the French government authorises these sales isn’t a reason for us to accept them. Thales is running a serious legal risk by supplying weapons that are used for a massacre” is this union executive’s opinion. “If we gave up these military contracts, they could be replaced by investments in medical equipment and technologies.” But this proposed diversification would not find favour with Patrick Caine, Thales CEO, reluctant to venture upon uncertain markets and who prefers “short term profitability”, according to the CGT.

The bosses’ rhetoric is all the harder to swallow for their employees as they never see the colour of these companies’ record-setting profits. In 2021, Dassault Aviation’s total profits amounted to nearly 700 million euros, i.e., twice the 2020 figure, and shareholders received 208 million euros in dividends. But the aircraft manufacturer had no plans to raise workers’ wages. They had to strike for nearly three months before obtaining a pay rise of a hundred euros or so. This unprecedented industrial action spread to the armaments factories of Thales and MBDA. Elancourt became the epicentre of anger with the longest strike in the history of Thales, lasting nearly two and a half months. “Thales wanted to economise with its wage policy and the workers just could not understand the bosses attitude at a time when the group was making money hand over fist and when the cash paid into the firm’s capital amounted to nearly 1.3 billion euros,” said CGT executive Gregory Lewandowsky.

The alliance that is beginning to take shape between the unions and some NGOs threatens to rock an industry which up to now has been overprotected by the government, itself a shareholder in several flagships of the armaments sector. More so, as within the industry itself, the pressure of public opinion is beginning to worry Human Resources Departments. Companies criticised on account of the use of their weapons in Yemen are said to have increasing difficulty recruiting young college graduates.

1According to data provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 60 Thales Damocles pods were delivered to Saudi Arabia between 2009 and 2017 to equip is fighter planes.

3Permits for weapons in the categories ML3 and ML4, i.e., munitions and rocket tuning device and their specially designed components, torpedo bombs, rockets, missiles, other explosive devices and materials and related accessories and their specially designed components.