Florence Parly: Sales Push

French ministers of Defence are expected to not just administer the country’s armed forces, but help sell military hardware as well. A political outsider, Florence Parly was recruited into the cabinet by President Emanuel Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe and given the mission to shake and shape up the French defence establishment and ensure its €41bn budget (1.7% of GDP) is allocated more efficiently. Meanwhile, Mme Parly is also tasked with ensuring the survival, if not profitability, of France’s large defence contractors, most of which barely managed to survive the lean years.

She started, rather boldly, by weaning Belgium away from its tentative decision – more of an inclination grounded in tradition – to replace its ageing fleet of 57 F16 fighters with costly US-build Joint Strike Fighters, offering the neighbours less costly Dassault Rafales instead. The €4.1bn deal includes a number of sweeteners such as technological and economic partnerships.

Aircraft manufacturer Dassault is being prodded by Mme Parly to submit a formal bid. The company is reluctant to do so after the cash-strapped Belgians unveiled far-reaching plans to integrate their diminished “air component” with the Dutch air force which already flies the JSF and is well known for its hostility towards French-made military kit.

Undeterred, Mme Parly promised to put more than 150 Belgian companies in the Rafale’s production loop. The Dassault Rafale is the problem child of the French defence industry and has so far only been sold to India, Egypt, and Qatar. In order to recoup the plane’s €46bn development cost, more users need to be found pronto. Brazil, Singapore, Switzerland, and a host of other countries already declined to purchase the fighter jet. Luckily, in early December Qatar agreed to increase its original 2015 order of 24 Rafales by a dozen – and take out an option for an additional 36 – to replace its now decidedly antique Mirages.

Thinking outside the box, Mme Parly has also been instrumental in getting the proposed Sahel Force closer to realisation. This multilateral undertaking aims to create a 5,000-strong standing force with one battalion each from the Francophone Sahel G5 – Mali, Mauretania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The force, which enjoys the financial backing of the EU and Saudi Arabia, is to operate alongside UN and European peacekeeping missions in the region and help fight Islamic extremism. It will, of course, be equipped with French weaponry.

On the home front, Mme Florence Parly faces a much less challenging environment. Cuts to the defence budget have been markedly less rigorous in France than elsewhere in Europe, ensuring the country’s forces were largely kept intact. The 180-ship Marine Nationale was able to preserve its air strike and assault capabilities with one large nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and three amphibious warfare ships that double as helicopter carriers.

The air force and army also successfully managed to escape the worst of the chopping blade. Having become slightly blasé and too outspoken for political comfort, the country’s military brass did require reigning in. After expressing his dismay with the government’s initial defence spending plans on – of all places – Facebook, Army Chief of Staff General Pierre de Villiers was forced into early retirement. However, the general’s last stand may not have been in vain as Minister Parly unveiled plans to up defence spending by $1.7bn annually in order to reach NATO’s recommended 2% of GDP.

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