The impact of the coronavirus on arms exports in France

In France, the world's third largest arms exporter, 90% of arms exports appear to have been suspended during the first national lock-down, while 10% are still operational. Nonetheless, the arms trade continues in various ways.

BP eng covid 19

New contracts

The arms trade still continues in other forms. The discussions and negotiations that take place before a contract is signed do not appear to have suffered the same slowdown as the rest of the economy.
On April 28th, 2020, France and Germany signed a new agreement to produce new battle tanks called program MGCS.

Armament industry

The first lock-down imposed in France from March 17th to tackle the coronavirus epidemic greatly slowed down sectors of industries that were unable to work remotely, such as the armaments sector. However, the major players of the industry quickly mobilised their networks (including the media) to demand the reopening of their factories during lock-down. Thus, the aeronautics industry was classified as an economic front-line necessity, allowing them to resume their activity during lock-down. 

The MBDA plants, for example, had 20% of their employees designated as unfit for teleworking, who resumed work in April 2020. At the end of April, the sector's recovery was estimated at 75% of its capacity. The sector also asked the government to invest massively in defence in order to mitigate the impact of the crisis on the aeronautics sector by saving the 200,000 jobs belonging to the armaments industry (according to data in 2020).

Armament Exhibitions

The Eurosatory arms fair that was to take place from 8-12 June 2020 was cancelled on March 23rd by its organiser, COGES. However, its financial impact seems to be quite low since COGES had previously insured against such a possibility: expenditure had
already amounted to €11 million by March 24th.
COGES is a subsidiary of GICAT (Groupement des Industries Françaises de Défense et de Sécurité Terrestres et Aéroterrestres), a group made up of large, medium and small French armament companies and supported by the Ministry of the Armed Forces and the government. The Armed Forces Minister, Florence Parly, even visited the Nexter company during lockdown on April 6th. Nexter’s CEO Stéphane Meyer is also the chairman of GICAT.

Government management relies on the army

The Ministry of the Armed Forces launched Operation Resilience on March 25th, 2020 as part of the fight against COVID-19 to provide logistical support primarily to the country's medical and health sector, which does not have the means and resources to deal with the epidemic.
French troops, who are increasingly solicited on radically different territories, both inside and outside the country, for a wide variety of missions, are likely to reach physical and mental exhaustion. The rest of the French army's deployments, particularly abroad, appeared to be barely disturbed according to the Ministry of the Armed Forces.
While the army and Operation Resilience have only a supporting role in the fight against the epidemic, the government has chosen to communicate using a war-centred discourse. In his March 16th speech announcing the national lock-down, President Emmanuel Macron used the phrase "We are at war" six times. This communication put the army and soldiers in the front line of the struggle under-considering the work of health workers, cleaning staff, garbage collectors, cashiers, farm workers, etc., who are really in the front line, denouncing the lack of masks in the fight against the coronavirus, fighting a battle without the right equipment.

Furthermore, the deployment of the military for security and health support missions on the national territory makes the precise role and mission of the more military confusing for the public opinion. These mechanisms prevent the possibility of any in-depth public debate regarding the French army's missions and the operations abroad.

Civil society's new priorities

a) Rethinking budget priorities

The coronavirus epidemic has shown the importance of rethinking the place of military spending in the government's strategy. However, the French government is currently considering an aid plan of around 1 billion euros for the aeronautics and defence industry sector. The health emergency in France has revealed the weakness of the budget devoted to the health of the French compared to military spending.There is an urgent need to reinvest the money in national health needs rather than arms


b) A cruel lack of transparency

On May 7th, 2020, the French association of defence journalists published a communique denouncing the lack of transparency, the lies and the pressure they experience from the French Ministry of the Armed Forces.
This shows a rising opacity of the Ministry of the Armed Forces on information. The Parliament had to cope with the same struggle. On April 28th, the government refused to communicate the rate of the army's equipment availability, classified as a confidential information. However, this rate used to be publicly communicated since 2013.
Moreover, the Ministry of the Armed Forces has been criticised for its lack of transparency regarding the spread of the coronavirus among the army. The numerous cases of contamination of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier highlight the lack of communication from the Ministry of the Armed Forces on the health situation within the institution. There is an urgent need to start an open dialogue between the Ministry of the Armed Forces, journalists, Parliament and the French population.

c) Rethinking peace globally

This global pandemic has also revealed new opportunities for peace-building. Indeed, many armed groups, faced with health dangers, have expressed their willingness to participate in a global ceasefire by laying down their arms. In March 2020, the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, called for a global ceasefire. A call that ended in a bitter failure of multilateralism as the resolution was adopted by the United Nations Security Council 3 months later after China and the US delayed talks (while each members of the UNSC is taking part in the arms trade, and therefore in conflits). There is an urgent need to rethink international cooperation to build a world where peace and human security prevail over the trade and profits from arms trade.

 You can download this document in PDF format by following this link: Briefing paper: The Arms Trade and Covid-19