Home Brussels On defense, French lawmakers don’t want to be wedded to Germany

On defense, French lawmakers don’t want to be wedded to Germany

by editor

PARIS — France can’t be the only faithful partner in its defense marriage with Germany.

Paris needs to look beyond Berlin for partnerships to avoid becoming isolated, the chair of the French National Assembly’s defense committee Thomas Gassilloud told POLITICO.

“Given the state of the world, Franco-German relations have never been more necessary,” said the lawmaker from President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party. However, “we have to be constantly aware of the need to speak to everyone and not let ourselves be too consumed by the Franco-German relationship. We try to divide our efforts between the different players.”

French presidents have historically made nurturing the relationship with Germany — the couple franco-allemand, as it’s known in French — one of their key priorities, and that especially applies to very expensive joint defense projects.

Paris and Berlin are engaged in (bumpy) industrial cooperation deals to build the next-generation battle tank, also known as the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS), and the next-generation fighter jet, the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), alongside Spain.

Those projects have been plagued with friction as big defense companies elbow for leadership and capitals support their own champions.

Lately, however, Germany has been getting cozy with other European governments.

In November, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was in Berlin to sign an action plan with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that includes defense.

A few days before that, Berlin was instrumental in pushing the Italian government to veto a planned $1.8 billion acquisition of Microtecnica — the Italian subsidiary of U.S.-based Collins Aerospace which makes flight control systems — by French group Safran, according to a copy of the Italian decree seen by POLITICO.

“This lack of prior consultation is regrettable among European partners,” an official from the French economy ministry said at the time.

Now, Gassilloud is pushing for France and its lawmakers to build ties with other countries including Italy and the U.K.

“There has never been so much dialogue with the Romanians, the Poles and the Baltic states,” he added, speaking from his office in the National Assembly.

Gassilloud’s remarks echo comments made by his counterpart in the Senate, Cédric Perrin, who said in October that France should seek to diversify defense alliances, especially now that Paris “has currently become one partner among many” for Berlin.

In November, a French diplomat told POLITICO that Paris is keen on a warmer defense relationship with Warsaw following the opposition victory in the October 15 election. Donald Tusk was sworn in this week as prime minister, and there is hope that Poland will shift its previous policy of favoring arms deals with the U.S. and South Korea.

Fraying ties

It’s not that Gassilloud wants to scrap the relationship with Germany. “We’re in a fairly positive but realistic phase,” he said.

Next month, a delegation from the French parliament will travel to Berlin to discuss MGCS with German lawmakers and the two countries’ army chiefs.

Officials in both countries insist that the big joint development schemes are on track, despite attracting political heat. French opposition parties — especially from the far-right and the far-left — regularly call for both MGCS and FCAS to be killed.

Another source of future tension between Paris and Berlin is FCAS’ potential export prospects once the jet fighter ecosystem is completed.

The worry is about how the German government is currently blocking the sale of Eurofighter Typhoon jets — developed by the U.K., Germany, Italy and Spain — to Saudi Arabia over human rights concerns.

Dassault Aviation CEO Eric Trappier, the French company leading on FCAS, told reporters earlier this month that Germany’s export policy was a red flag for the next-generation fighter jet.

French officials insist the FCAS agreement allows Paris to sell the future warplane to whoever it pleases, but the Eurofighter precedent concerns Gassilloud.

“Even if the legal framework allows it, it’s not ideal if one of the partners drags his feet,” he said. “We need to improve the strategic culture on both sides to take the importance of these exports into account.”

Other partners could also be fickle.

The defense committee chief cautiously welcomed Belgium’s willingness to fully join the warplane project — but pointed out it doesn’t include an ironclad agreement to make Belgium switch from American to European aircraft at this stage.

“We still need to ensure a degree of consistency between adherence to long-term programs and short-term behavior, so as not to create too great a discrepancy,” he said, referring to Belgium’s purchases of U.S.-made Lockheed Martin F-35A fighter jets.

Dassault’s Trappier has voiced similar concerns.

However, Gassilloud is keen on a partnership with Belgium on the production of small-caliber ammunition — an industry that no longer exists in France — helped by the French military’s use of Belgian-made SCAR-H PR rifles.

“Belgium has a strategic vision for small-caliber ammunition. European defense is also based on a form of country-by-country specialization,” he said.

Giorgio Leali contributed reporting.

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