France’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia: a moral, legal and democratic challenge

Mahault Bernard is studying for an MA in International Peace and Security. Her latest article assesses the legal, moral and political dilemmas surrounding French arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The maritime blockade currently taking place off the Yemeni coast could lead to a rapid spread of famine in the region: an estimated 8.4 million Yemenis already live in a state of food insecurity today [1]. Part of this blockade is being maintained with the help of frigates that France sold to Saudi Arabia [2]. More generally, multiple reports (including from L’Observatoire des Armements [3] and Amnesty International [4]) have illustrated in great detail how French arms are being used against the Yemeni population. Such a situation obviously raises fundamental moral dilemmas for Western leaders, especially in the light of the recent killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Policymakers cannot afford to ignore the consequences of such sales. Some countries have therefore decided to put an end to their arms exportations to Saudi Arabia. The US Senate, for example, demanded the cessation of US support to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week, despite President Trump’s protests [5]. After Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, Germany clearly condemned Saudi Arabia’s actions and explained that its relations with the Middle Eastern state would drastically change thereafter.

However, France does not seem willing to condemn Mohammed bin Salman’s actions [6]. Such choices, of course, involve much more than just ethical questions: they intertwine domestic and international political issues, economic interests or security questions and sometimes leave aside moral concerns. In this instance, economic interests appear to prevail. France’s arms sales indeed resulted in a huge gain for the country. They would have brought 7 billion euros to France in 2017 [7]. Moreover, the arms industry creates many jobs. According to Florence Parly, the French Minister of the Armed Forces “every day, 200,000 persons (…) work to conceive and produce” weaponry [8]. Moreover, the French President Emmanuel Macron explained that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi could not justify a cessation of sales and relations with Saudi Arabia. However, it is important not to aggregate these two controversial issues. According to Macron, a solution is to be found in dialogue through diplomatic channels. France’s political willingness to put an end to the situation in Yemen is still questionable. Saudi Arabia has been a destination for French arms for more than 40 years. The Observatoire des Armements’ investigation showed that French leaders were not unaware of how these weapons would be used. Saudi arms imports have exploded before and during the conflict. Between 2013 and 2017, imports soared by 225% in comparison with 2008-2012 [9]. This could imply that France violates arms regulations set by Europe and The Arms Trade Treaty.

France’s position constitutes a profound diplomatic and democratic challenge. These arms sales reflect a failure of the implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty [10]. This agreement, which came into force in December 2014 had been ratified by France and has, more generally, a total of 130 state signatories party to the agreement. Anna Macdonald, director of Control Arms, a civil society organization dedicated to the treaty, explained: “The big disappointment is the countries that were in the forefront of calling for the treaty – and indeed who still champion it as a great achievement in international disarmament and security – are now prepared to violate it by persisting in their arms sales to Saudi Arabia [11]”. Articles 6 and 7 of the treaty explain that States shall not authorize arms transfers that could be used against a population or to violate human rights [12]. “All states party to the treaty are required to conduct comprehensive risk assessments before authorizing arms exports” [13]. For Elli Kytömäki, “the possibility that arms could be used for genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes should be a prime consideration in decisions to deny transfer requests. It is yet not the case today”. Furthermore, observers have criticized France’s lack of transparency concerning their arms sales. Discussions around arms sales lack transparency and even criteria for these sales remain opaque. For Tony Fortin, researcher at l’Observatoire des Armements, France’s biggest problem might, in fact, be a democratic one[14].


[1] Olivia Gesbert and Julie Gacon. “Vente D’armes : La France Participe-t-elle à La Guerre Au Yémen ?”. L’invité des matins d’été (2ème partie) France Culture. August 16, 2018.

[2] Observatoire des Armements. “Nouveaux « indices De Présence » De Matériel Militaire Français Au Yémen Et Demande D’ouverture D’une Enquête Parlementaire.” Association Moruroa E Tatou.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Joseph Breham and Laurence Greig. “Les transferts d’armes de la France dans le cadre du conflit au Yemen, à compter d’avril 2015 jusqu’à la période actuelle” Ancile Avocats, Legal opinion, 16 mars 2018.

[5] Gilles Paris. “Le Sénat Demande L’arrêt Du Soutien Apporté Par Washington à L’Arabie Saoudite.” Le December 14, 2018.

[6] “Ventes D’armes à L’Arabie Saoudite : Le Timide Embarras Des Pays Européens.” Service International. Le October 02, 2018.

[7] “Huit Questions Sur Les Ventes D’armes De La France à L’Arabie Saoudite.” Franceinfo. October 24, 2018.

[8] Ibid.


[9] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “L’Asie Et Le Moyen-Orient Mènent La Tendance à La Hausse Des Importations D’armements, Les Exportations Des États-Unis Augmentent De Manière Significative, Selon Le SIPRI.” News release, March 12, 2018.

[10] The Arms Trade Treaty, United Nations, 14 December 2014.

[11] “UN Arms Trade Treaty Failing in Yemen.” The Wire.

[12] Joseph Breham and Laurence Greig. “Les transferts d’armes de la France dans le cadre du conflit au Yemen, à compter d’avril 2015 jusqu’à la période actuelle” Ancile Avocats, Legal opinion, (March 16, 2018), 61.

[13] Elli Kytömäki. “The Arms Trade Treaty and Human Security. Cross-cutting Benefits of Accession and Implementation”. Chatham House (February 2015).

[14] Olivia Gesbert and Julie Gacon. “Vente D’armes : La France Participe-t-elle à La Guerre Au Yémen ?”.

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