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Samuel Faure, Thibaut Joltreau, Andy Smith (2019)The Differentiated Integration of Defence Companies in Europe: A Sociology of (Trans) National Economic Elites
ERIS – European Review of International Studies, 6
Lucie Béraud-Sudreau, Hugo Meijer (2016)Enjeux stratégiques et économiques des politiques d’exportation d’armement: Une comparaison franco-américaine
Lucie Béraud-Sudreau, Samuel Faure, Michael Sladeczek (2015)Réguler le commerce des armes par le Parlement et l’opinion publique
R. Mielcarek (2017)Marchands d'armes
Emma Soubrier (2020)The weaponized Gulf riyal politik(s) and shifting dynamics of the global arms trade
The Economics of Peace and Security Journal
Cécile Fauconnet, J. Malizard, Antoine Pietri (2018)French Arms Exports and Intrastate Conflicts: An Empirical Investigation
Defence and Peace Economics, 30
E. Kolodziej (1987)Making and Marketing Arms: The French Experience and Its Implications for the International System
American Political Science Review, 82
(2016)Rétrospective des exportations d’armement en France (1958-2015)
Lucie Béraud-Sudreau (2020)French Arms Exports
Lucie Béraud-Sudreau (2014)Un changement politisé dans la politique de défense
Emma Soubrier (2022)Weaponized storytelling a la francaise: Demystifying France's narratives around its arms export policies
« AUX ARMES, CITOYENS ! » – LET US TALK ABOUT FRENCH ARMSIn France, arms sales were unchallenged for a long time, with little to no media or public pressure, even if this started changing with the war in Yemen (Béraud‐Sudreau et al., 2015; Regny, 2019). The topic appears to have been guarded as the realm of a select number of people who often consider any scrutiny on a specific contract or on export control processes as a dangerous – and naïve – attempt to completely ban arms sales. Arms‐related debates are indeed often caricatured as a forever war between two largely imagined communities, namely those cheering all arms sales and those opposing them under every circumstance (Soubrier, 2022: 28).This situation pertains to a perceived technicity of the issue area fueled by a continued opacity surrounding weapons exports (Gontier, 2018). It is also linked to the important number of French actors involved in this trade who are looking to safeguard their economic and political interest (Béraud‐Sudreau, 2014; Lavrilleux, 2022). Last, but certainly not least, it is to be understood in connection with an overarching idea that arms sales contribute to France's “strategic autonomy”– that is, “the ability to set one's own priorities and make one's own decisions in matters of foreign policy and security, together with the institutional, political and material wherewithal to carry these through” (Lippert et al., 2019: 5), − and are therefore untouchable.The “strategic autonomy” argument is but one thread within the fabric of the French storytelling around its arms sales, the other main one being the idea that French export control processes are already “strict, transparent and responsible” (France Diplomacy, 2019) enough. It has however increasingly represented a trump card used by policymakers in the defence of exports that have become more controversial against the backdrop of heightened armed conflict involving or even initiated by some of France's main clients. Several licensing decisions made regardless of armed conflict – or even because of it – have undermined all three pillars (the rigour, transparency, and responsibility claims) of the narrative around French export control processes. This could logically lead to policy revisions. Yet, it has been difficult to formulate – let alone implement – corrective measures to these processes because French arms export licensing decisions are treated as inseparable from French foreign policy, thus subject to no oversight from or accountability to independent parties. Concretely, licensing decisions are described as a “sovereign act” – a legal term which means that they cannot be challenged in court.This paper unpacks the storytelling around French arms sales then makes the case that demystifying the “strategic autonomy” argument is paramount to make room for necessary improvements in French arms exports control processes. Today, in a context where unchecked exports relying on outdated views of global dynamics can precisely undermine France's strategic autonomy and foreign policy interests, the need to look beyond this blanket narrative is stronger than ever.Anchored in a relatively recent literature looking at French arms exports from different angles (Béraud‐Sudreau, 2020; Béraud‐Sudreau & Meijer, 2016; Elluin & Fontenelle, 2021; Fauconnet & Malizard, 2016; Mielcarek, 2017; Poiret, 2019), the paper builds upon considerations discussed in these as well as in various advocacy and legislative reports to offer a new perspective sitting at the crossroad of critical discourse and strategic analysis geared towards policy recommendation.FRANCE'S ARMS EXPORTS CONTROL PROCESSES: CHALLENGEABLE NARRATIVESThe French Ministry of foreign affairs advertises that the country's export control processes are “strict, transparent and responsible”. All three claims included in this affirmation have however been challenged over the past decade, particularly in cases of arms exports during war or armed conflict.Overview of French arms export controlsIn France, all military exports need to be formally green‐lighted by the Prime Minister, after the issuance of a recommendation from the ministries of defence, foreign affairs, economy and finance, which participate in the Interministerial Commission for the Study of War Material Exports (the Commission interministérielle pour l'étude des exportations de matériels de guerre, CIEEMG). The consultation and final licensing decisions follow a set of export guidelines (Ministère des Armées, 2021: 10) that aim to reach three goals: help partners address their defence needs, comply with arms control, disarmament, and non‐proliferation commitments, and support national and European industries.As these goals suggest, export controls are based on various regulatory frameworks France is party to, but also on economic and strategic considerations pertaining to the broader framework of the country's foreign, defence and security policy. France applies several arms‐related international commitments, particularly the European Union (EU) Council Common Position, amended in 2019, and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). However, a review of the criteria identified in these texts as a bedrock for arms export licensing is not enough to understand France's decisions because they are put in the balance with other concerns within what is ultimately “a sovereign act” (Ministère de la Défense 2016: 6).How each dimension is considered, compared to other matters, and prioritised by the CIEEMG and the Prime Minister in reaching their conclusion to authorise or deny export licences is unknown outside the elite inner circle of arms export decisionmakers. Decision‐making happens behind closed doors, and no account of the debates is available to anyone outside of this small circle.This directly contradicts the narrative of transparent French arms export control processes. While this claim generally refers to the fact that a Report to Parliament on the Export of French Armaments is published annually since 2000, it is also worth noting that data such as the reasons for which some export licences are denied are precisely still missing from it. The inaccuracy of this pillar of the traditional storytelling surrounding France's arms export control processes but also of the other two pillars (rigour and responsibility) has become more apparent over the past decade, against the backdrop of French arms sales to conflict parties on several occasions.Narratives that appear particularly faulty in conflict casesBecause France is a state party to the EU Council Common Position, seeking to prevent arms exports that are likely to provoke or prolong intrastate or interstate armed conflict (Criteria 3 and 4), it could be expected to refrain from exporting weapons to conflict parties. However, as notably shown by the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE while both were waging war in Yemen, it has not. France is not unique: most of the world's largest arms exporters do not exercise restraint in arms transfers to conflict parties (Perlo‐Freeman, 2021). In France's case, as was recently explored by Soubrier (2022), it has come in contradiction with many aspects of its arms‐related narrative and brought debate on these topics in a way that remains unusual for the country.The French arms export control processes are described as strict, but some sales to Saudi Arabia have demonstrated that they can sometimes be simply bypassed by presidential authority when the CIEEMG denies an export licence intended for a “strategic partner” (Guisnel, 2017). The processes are described as transparent, but civil society disagrees, with fourteen NGOs issuing a press release in 2020 to urge the government to “end its opacity on arms sales” (International Federation for Human Rights, 2020). Meanwhile, the government has doubled down on its efforts to keep these topics out of the spotlight: journalists who leaked classified documents about arms exports were summoned by intelligence services on the account of divulging military secrets and jeopardising national defence (Arfi & Suc, 2019). Finally, the processes are described as responsible, but observers from Human Rights Watch have notably argued that French arms deals to Egypt enable President Abdel Fattah al‐Sisi's government's well‐documented abuses (Houry & Jeannerod, 2019).As discrepancies between France's narrative about its arms export controls and its export practices became particularly clear against the backdrop of conflict cases over the past decade, public attention focused more on it: today, 83% of French people think France's arms trade lacks transparency and 75% believe that it should be the subject of a public debate in the country (Amnesty International, 2021). Yet, this has not immediately prompted government officials to update and strengthen the processes or have a more open conversation about these topics. A review of arms control processes started in 2018 produced a report that was presented by MPs Maire and Tabarot to the National Assembly in November 2020 (Maire & Tabarot, 2020), but it has had little policy impact so far. In 2022, the French government followed one recommendation regarding the need for more transparency on dual‐use export controls by putting out a Report to Parliament focused on these systems for the first time. However, both Reports came out 4 months late, and Parliament was only granted a very short session, behind closed doors, to debate them (Fortin, 2022).In fact, the pushback tends to be criticised rather than addressed by policymakers. During discussions I had with people working in the field in 2022, some observers said that it was “biased” to focus on “a handful of examples of relative or arguable failure of the control processes” instead of “appreciating the big picture” (Interview 1, 2022). One of them even used a remarkable analogy to back this idea: “in the arms trade, much like in the realm of covert operations, failures are overvalued because they are more visible, and cast a shadow upon the overwhelming number of successes” (Interview 2, 2022).Such an affirmation invites further examination. To support the claim that arms export control processes are overall successful, one would need to either demonstrate that the authorisation of arms sales helped stabilise a national or regional conflict situation or produce examples of export restraint when there was an opportunity to sell weapons but doing so would have had destabilising effects. Fauconnet et al. (2019) demonstrated that French arms exports were negatively related to the intensity of intrastate conflicts from 1992 to 2014. However, these conclusions would arguably no longer stand when looking at the past decade and considering broader armed conflict (including asymmetric) and regional instability. Between 2012 and 2021, more than 40% of France's total exports went to four countries, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that were all involved in at least one new minor conflict or war. Besides, it is worth noting that one example often put forth by my interviewees as proof of effective and efficient controls was the cancellation of the Mistral sale to Russia in 2015 – which is itself deconstructed in Soubrier (2022). In any case, the reaction of policymakers to these processes being questioned says a lot about how much of a preserve for a select few tied to national security the arms trade remains in France. It also uncovers another key aspect of arms‐related narratives, namely how impenetrable and therefore unchallengeable these topics are shaped to be.The adaptive shapeshifting of France's arms‐related storytellingExamining French arms exports to conflict zones and the arguments used to legitimise these transfers that go against a strict application of the EU Common Position and of the ATT reveal a key facet of the conversations surrounding the arms trade in the country, that is a certain elasticity of discourses. Three significant examples illustrate this discourse elasticity.First, the French arms export control system itself is defined as relying on a “principle of prohibition…. subjecting the entire sector of defense and its flows to state control” (France Diplomacy, 2019). Formally meaning that arms sales are forbidden except when they are expressly sanctioned by the government, this expression is a discursive illusion. It is misleading because it implies that France's arms exports are the exception rather than the rule and that its licensing processes are not very permissive. Such ideas are arguably contradicted by the facts that France is the world's third largest arms exporter and that its share of global arms exports increased by a whopping 59% from 2012–2016 to 2017–2021 (Wezeman et al., 2022). Nevertheless, the principle of prohibition is still repeatedly put forth as proof of how rigorous France's control regime is.Second, French arms‐related storytelling makes a linguistic twist from transparency to efficiency. It is very frequent to hear policymakers and officials in France argue that there is essentially no need for more political oversight of and transparency about exports because the control system is already “strict” or “efficient” enough (various interviews conducted in 2022). As was underlined, however, there has recently been at least a couple of exceptions to the rigour claim. Without more transparency about the processes, there is essentially no way to confirm that strict controls have for instance prevented exports that could have been detrimental, or that controls could not be more efficient.Finally, French policymakers often make a rhetorical shift from responsibility to reliability in official discourses about weapons exports – notably describing France as a “responsible and reliable partner” in a same breath, like in the Prime Minister's communiqué to answer critics about arms delivered in the context of the war in Yemen (Arte, 2019). These semantic acrobatics in the promotion of France as a responsible – or reliable – arms dealer are critical because they demonstrate a fundamental difference of perspective depending on its audience. Civil society actors and NGOs calling for more responsibility of the government require more accountability while officials seem mainly preoccupied with reliability as a weapons supplier in the long run, to sustain relations with existing partners and secure new clients. One can argue that genuine transparency and accountability could also become a new gold standard that would be at least as likely to help maintain its status within the global arms trade. In this respect, there are a couple of ways in which the export control processes could be improved.ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT IN FRENCH ARMS EXPORTS CONTROL PROCESSESThe shortcomings of the narrative according to which French arms export control processes are “strict, transparent and responsible” could be addressed through three policy adjustments that would effectively consider new conflict dynamics witnessed over the past decade.More rigour: Resolving the time lapse conundrumA major hurdle of arms export control processes evidenced in some sales of French military equipment lies in the limited time span considered when assessing the risk that arms transferred to a country might be used in armed conflict. These processes can be strict once conflict is already underway but still lack an adequate level of rigour if they do not consider the likelihood of weapons being used later. The longevity of weapons indeed raises questions for the timescale of any risk assessment. (Stavrianakis, 2022: 27).It was for instance argued that the disinclination of Paris to immediately cancel the contract for Mistral warships with Moscow in the midst of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea was to be understood in a context where the only criterion determining whether the delivery would be possible was “a resolution of the Ukrainian crisis in satisfactory conditions” (Maulny 2015). A door was thus left open in case this happened in a timely manner despite the risk that the ships be used down the road in a way that had every chance of being inconsistent with France's international commitments. This is not a theory, as illustrated by Admiral Vysotsky's remark that Russia would have won its 2008 war against Georgia in “40 minutes instead of 26 hours” if it had possessed Mistrals then (Isbister & Quéau, 2014: 5).Over the past decade, the difficulty of accurately predicting that there is no probability of direct use of a given weapons system in armed conflict at the time of delivery has been repeatedly demonstrated. In fact, it has increased because of the direct or indirect participation of France's main arms recipients in armed conflicts, which is something new (Soubrier, 2022: 25–26). Thus, there is a clear need to reconsider the temporality of risk. A decision could be made to establish a longer timeframe as a baseline to assess the likelihood of clients to use these arms in a manner that could infringe on one or several of the criteria identified in the EU Common Position and the ATT.While such a reform seems reasonable, a tighter legal framework does not guarantee its successful implementation. Arguments mobilised by French lawmakers to legitimise arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia when it was evident that they would be used in Yemen are quite telling. For instance, the Administrative Court of Paris denied the request submitted by Action des Chrétiens pour l'Abolition de la Torture (ACAT) to prevent the transit and exit from France of a Saudi ship transporting French arms in May 2019 by adopting a very strict interpretation of the “imminent danger to the lives of people” it represented (ATT Expert Group, 2021: 31). This not only shows that armed conflict is not a determining factor for restraint in French arms exports, but also that, in certain cases at least, policymakers seem keener on abiding by the letter than by the spirit of the law. French export control processes apparently need to be stricter but also more responsible.More responsibility: Addressing the defensive versus offensive weapons conundrumAnother frequent reason to grant export licences in a situation that could otherwise be considered as unfavourable, when armed conflict is likely or already underway, is to transfer defensive weapons. This is particularly true when a friendly country (a partner or an ally) is the one that may be or is under attack. The recent general understanding that it is legitimate and welcome to send military equipment to Ukraine to help its self‐defence against Russia is a clear illustration of this. While the defensive nature and use of the arms transferred to Kyiv seem straightforward, the application of the same rhetoric to defend the legitimacy and relevance of some arms sales to Riyadh against the backdrop of its intervention in Yemen has been much more problematic – and calls for more responsibility in export controls.It is important to acknowledge how challenging it is to sort out defensive versus offensive systems – and it is in fact “surprisingly difficult to come up with an example of a weapon that is purely defensive” (Forge, 2015). Weapons are not defensive or offensive by nature, it is how they are used that makes the difference. And the issue precisely appears to sometimes come from a disconnect between the intended use of the material and its actual use on the ground in armed conflict or war. In this instance, while the Caesar cannons were meant to be stationed at Saudi Arabia's southern border to protect its territory against potential Houthi incursions, the Yemen Papers – released by French NGO Disclose – revealed that some of them were used in an offensive capacity, to “back up loyalist troops and Saudi armed forces in their progression into Yemeni territory” (Disclose, 2019).The reality is that any precautions that France, like other arms exporters, takes to ensure that its weapons are used for defensive and not offensive goals may come up short: “Weapons are highly durable goods, the line between defense and offensive is frequently unclear, and recipient priorities may shift over time, in ways [governments] cannot predict or control” (Erickson, 2022: 30). To avoid such conundrums and limit risks of arms being used in non‐compliance with its commitments, France could strengthen accountability mechanisms for clients. This was one recommendation from the report presented in 2020 to the National Assembly (Maire & Tabarot, 2020). An example of such measures would be post‐shipment controls, with on‐site inspections already developed and implemented by a few European countries (Varisco et al., 2020).Here again, however, revising texts seems to be a necessary but insufficient step because the interpretability and applicability of texts is left to the appreciation of actors that sometimes seem bent on having them say what they need them to say – and on not being challenged about it. At the heart of the matter, the acknowledgment that governmental accountability remains a moving target explains that another recommendation from the Maire and Tabarot report was to confer oversight powers to the Parliament. But such ideas are hardly audible in a context where the interference of parties outside the small, closed circle people gravitating around arms production and arms sales is deemed undesirable. A memo from the General Secretariat for Defence and National Security (SGDSN) leaked by Disclose in December 2020 notably revealed that Maire and Tabarot report was interpreted as a “covert” attempt to “constrain the government's policies” and “control the action of the executive branch”, which could “damage the credibility of France's commitments and its ability to export” (AFP, 2020).More transparency: Allowing some room for debateThe need for more transparency in France's arms exports control processes has been underlined by many civil society actors and NGOs, as made apparent by the Amnesty International campaign called “Silence, we're arming”. While some progress is to be noted (in 2020, the Report to Parliament included data from the annual report to the ATT for the first time), there is “still much to be done, and urgently, to improve the transparency of France” (Amnesty International, 2020). Having more access to data and rationales making up the arms exports control processes today would indeed allow more room for discussion on how to improve policies.When observing the adaptive shapeshifting of France's arms‐related narratives and navigating the evolutive approach of government officials to what constitutes an acceptable reason to export weapons, it is manifest that most of them believe that whatever the arms export control processes may need, they do not need more scrutiny – or not from just anyone. Interviews with a dozen people from these circles showed that many of them agree that France's export policy and control processes can be improved. However, in most cases, they argued that these conversations should be kept to a select number of experts and behind closed doors because of “the complexity of the issues at stake” and of “how much it involves national interests” (various interviews conducted in 2022).This nurtured secrecy around France's arms trade indeed has a lot to do with its understanding as an inherent part of foreign policy, which includes the need to be a reliable long‐term supplier but also to sustain strategic partnerships often associated with such supplying state ‐ client state relationships. Consequently, these circles seem to consider that most criticism is going to be irrelevant because it will fail to grasp the full scale of interests being sustained through these weapons exports. It is a convenient rhetorical shield in that only more transparency would precisely allow to confirm this.More generally, debates on France's war material exports are often thwarted by the overarching idea that they contribute to the country's strategic autonomy and are therefore untouchable. Over the years, this argument has singlehandedly been used to defuse, or intercept and destroy, many an attempt to challenge the way France's arms trade works, serving as a form of rhetorical air defence system – all while rarely if ever being clearly defined.CONFRONTING THE MOTHER OF ALL RHETORICAL SHIELDS: THE “STRATEGIC AUTONOMY” ARGUMENTIn France, the reluctance to discuss policy flaws, make changes, and improve implementation stems from a core belief in weapons sales as an essential support to the country's strategic autonomy – an idea that is in fact increasingly challenged by new dynamics in the global arms trade and the world.The “strategic autonomy” argument, rooted in contemporary historyIn France, there is a core belief in weapons sales as an essential support to the strategic autonomy of the country – and that of others, along a “third way” narrative. This notion finds its roots in France's “politique de grandeur” established and defended by the General Charles de Gaulle as the first President of the Fifth Republic from 1958 on. It points to an independent decision‐making, not dictated by either of the world's two superpowers during the Cold War. Historically, France's arms exports have been considered as an inherent part of efforts to nurture this distinctive status in the global arena – a “by‐product of strategic autonomy” (Béraud‐Sudreau, 2020: 19; Kolodziej, 1987).At a domestic level, the “strategic autonomy” argument alludes to the fact that having and maintaining its own national defence technological and industrial base, and most crucially nuclear capabilities, has consistently allowed France to not have to bow down to American hegemony. This also explains the close relationship between the state and the defence industry, which relies on capitalist links (Renon, 2019) and a more subtle sociology of business and political elites (Faure et al., 2019; Genieys, 2004) that continue to perpetuate this alignment of interests and would deserve a dedicated study.At an international level, building on the independence it carved out for itself, France also developed an arms‐related “third way” narrative, marketing French weapons as a guarantee of non‐alignment for the countries importing them. Since the 1990s, the collapse of the USSR and global initiatives for arms control could have dismissed these arguments entirely. In fact, quite the opposite happened. Not only has arms production remained associated with France's sovereignty in the political discourse, but arms exports have been further incorporated into the narrative, as illustrated by defence minister Florence Parly calling them “the business model of our sovereignty” in 2018 (Béraud‐Sudreau, 2020).The idea that the grandeur of France is uniquely supported by its defence sector and arms production has recently been on the rise, under President Macron who put it at the heart not just of a French but also of a European strategic autonomy. The “third way” narrative through arms sales to the rest of the world was also revived over the past decade, in a context of renewed tensions between the US and Russia, as well as the strategic competition between the US and China. This is visible in the Indo‐Pacific post‐AUKUS, where France intends to “champion a third path”, “beyond any logic of blocks” (Duchâtel & Kefferpütz, 2022). The rhetorical shield of the “strategic autonomy” thus continues to be instrumental in most of the discussions around the validity of any given export licence today, even if arms transfers can precisely undermine France's strategic autonomy and its foreign policy interests in some cases, particularly in relation to the growing reverse influence of client states and the long‐term destabilisation linked to arms (re)transfers to non‐state actors.Limits of the argument amidst shifting global dynamicsFrance increasingly turned to exports to sustain its defence technological and industrial base when its domestic market was reduced along its defence budget, during the decade following the 2008–2009 global financial crisis. This growing dependence on clients creates an antinomy of arms sales as a means of strategic independence. Recent developments in the global arms trade (such as Gulf countries turning to China for armed drones or to Russia for air‐defence systems) have reactivated arms exporters' fears about how interchangeable and therefore dispensable they have become. While this helps to understand the French emphasis on being a dependable partner (sometimes to the apparent exclusion of any other factor), what this looks like can be challenged. It also directly contradicts the strategic autonomy argument.Moreover, the determination of some recipient states to leverage their increased attractiveness to obtain better technical specificities of weapon systems they buy also political concessions from their partners means that the autonomy of France's foreign policy itself can be called into question (Soubrier, 2020a). Few countries have the means to be fully independent. But the combination of these dynamics at least makes the case for a more thorough risk analysis and assessment of whether and how each arms export licensing decision indeed contributes to French strategic autonomy – or if it is likely to endanger it.Recent conflict case studies have also shown that export licensing decisions possibly anchored in an outdated view of regional and global dynamics can lead to undercut French national interests. The direct or indirect participation of France's main arms recipients in armed conflicts, a renewed trend that had all but disappeared since the Iran‐Iraq war, has indeed become increasingly visible but also more politically sensitive. This situation calls for a robust revaluation of the risks of use of French weapons in non‐compliance with France's international commitments, as well as a robust revaluation of whether the goals pursued by these clients align with French interests. Instead, the tendency has been to continue exporting as was the case when the equipment was rarely if ever employed, and when the trading partners still had a very risk‐averse foreign policy across the board.Other challenges include the risk of technology being diverted to third parties which could use it against French armed forces or interests down the road, the risk of a “friendly regime” of today becoming an enemy tomorrow and the overall risk of further destabilising a situation or a region by pouring weapons into it, albeit for what is at some point determined to be “the right reasons” (Soubrier, 2022). These examples show how crucial it is to have a risk analysis that not only looks at short‐term benefits but also at long‐term consequences and their impact on regional or global security, as well as national priorities and critical security needs within that. Going back on the difference drawn earlier between Ukraine and Saudi Arabia, it would in this respect perhaps be as relevant to draw a parallel between Ukraine and Syria – or Libya, depending on the level of interference that NATO allies are willing to reach, and to learn from these recent lessons.Beyond this, the contribution of weapons exports to France's strategic autonomy has remained an important argument or sometimes a trump card in the hand of policymakers and stakeholders gravitating around the arms trade but the specific way in which they do has rarely if ever been defined. It thus needs to be dissected so that the extent of its relevance in each export prospect can be properly assessed. This implies to go beyond the current terms of the debate on arms sales – or lack thereof – that often stay at a surface level, leading to oversimplification and misunderstanding.Transcending the current terms of the (non) debate on arms salesThe unchallenged repetition of a streamlined storytelling about the French arms trade has prevented any fruitful discussion. This is, in part, because these topics have been kept to a small, closed circle of people many of whom have entrenched interests (Renon, 2019) in things staying the same. The mobilisation of the idea that there is a critical need to preserve France's strategic autonomy as a last resort to close the debate has also been efficient because the defence of the country's sovereignty resonates with the French psyche. However, the use of this argument has been particularly detrimental not because it is baseless but because it is often used as a blanket narrative for just about any arms sale including some that may undermine France's strategic autonomy and national interests.This weaponised storytelling and the lack of transparency on arms‐related topics have also been counterproductive because they ignite distrust. What sometimes appears to be a monolithic view in favour of most arms deals is also dangerous because it is often associated with a tendency to consider anyone raising a concern about the way controls are handled as someone having an opposed monolithic view, creating a situation where dialogue is impossible, or is presented as such. There is thus an urgent need to foster more debate within an inclusive community of people working in, on and around this field to suggest new approaches.One way to improve arms exports control processes in France would be to design and implement a method to conduct more systematic and objective evaluations of a prospective arms deal's expected contribution to France's strategic autonomy and national interests, based on measurable arguments (for instance linked to the maintenance of specific skills, a scalable goal in terms of investments in R&D, etc.). This implies to define what this encompasses through identified – observable and quantifiable – metrics of success. All of this could be a topic of discussion amongst scholars, experts and practitioners whose work could help policymakers to then more impartially evaluate each export prospect as it relates to these interests and goals – and whether it is the best way to meet these.As critical would be an effort to transcend the current terms of the French approach to what constitutes a strategic partnership. Soubrier (2022) showed that debate was particularly difficult when a deal was framed as an inherent part of a bilateral relationship deemed a “strategic partnership.” Here again, raising questions does not mean indiscriminately opposing a given idea or dynamic. One way to resolve the current conundrum that policymakers seem to be facing would be to pursue initiatives to decenter the role of arms in securing these strategic partnerships that are and could in all probability remain central to French foreign policy. The good news in this respect is that there is no lack of alternative priorities to focus cooperation on (Soubrier, 2020b).CONCLUSION: UNPACKING THE STORYTELLING AROUND FRENCH ARMS EXPORTS FOR THE BETTERThe arms trade is a topic that is in many countries purposely kept away from the public eye. It is often depicted as too technical or sensitive to be discussed by most people, either because it supposedly escapes their analytical capabilities or because it is way too far from their daily life and concerns – even if it directly impacts it as taxpayers. In relation to this, coverage about new arms transfers generally continues to rely on a set of unchallenged notions such as the idea that arms industries are uniquely valuable to the national economy and competitiveness because they are “technologically innovative job creators” (Myth 4 in World Peace Foundation, 2017), or that arms exports are a very efficient vector of influence in foreign policy. Leaving these narratives unattended while evolving dynamics (dependence on clients that participate in a growing number of conflicts and jeopardise their partners' national interests) increasingly contradict them is particularly harmful, and the time to start unpacking, challenging and updating them is now (see Myth 7 in Ibid.).In France, such an endeavour could start with demystifying the “strategic autonomy” argument because of how central it remains in all conversations about the legitimacy and significance of many an arms deal, including when a given weapons export otherwise contradicts other factors that could be prioritised by the decision‐making processes. This enterprise would help revaluate what France's non‐negotiable strategic needs are today and how arms trade intersects with them. This could also allow a renewed appraisal of how France could meet its most prevalent challenges without infringing on its international commitments and its own national interests down the road.To be clear, this article does not suggest that manufacturing and selling weapons do not or cannot contribute to France's core interests and sustain its strategic autonomy. What it does instead is proposing that the black box of said “strategic autonomy” be opened and engaged with by scholars (economists, lawmakers, political scientists, etc.), experts and practitioners to sort out what is necessary and immovable, where there is room to manoeuvre and innovate, what is out of date – and most importantly, how the arms trade can help and what could be tackled through a new approach.Consequently, government officials should welcome and encourage rather than dread and fend off the revitalisation of such debate around France's strategic autonomy, France's national interests, and where France's arms trade fits in the picture. To be most efficient, this could be entrusted to a community of people who would be equipped with the necessary knowledge to appreciate the complexity of these issues but also removed enough from immediate political considerations to be able to bring genuinely fresh energies and perspectives to address future challenges.The implementation of this proposal would be a valuable long‐term investment in strategic planning and a useful complement to more immediate ideas to improve France's arms exports control processes. These include the recommendation to update risk analyses preceding arms sales by lengthening the timeframe used to appreciate the likelihood that weapons may be misused in the future as well as other pertinent suggestions from the 2020 Maire and Tabarot report, like strengthening accountability mechanisms for client states and conferring oversight power to the Parliament.ACKNOWLEDGEMENTSThe author would like to thank Jennifer Erickson and Anna Stavrianakis for their helpful comments.DATA AVAILABILITY STATEMENTData sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analyzed in this study.REFERENCESAFP. (2020) Ventes d'armes: le gouvernement opposé à un contrôle parlementaire accru. Le Parisien, December 20, 2020. Available from: https://www.leparisien.fr/politique/ventes‐d‐armes‐le‐gouvernement‐oppose‐a‐un‐controle‐parlementaire‐accru‐07‐12‐2020‐8413011.php. [Accessed 9th February 2023].Amnesty International. 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Global Policy – Wiley
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