France has clinched a deal to sell 24 Rafale fighter jets and a multipurpose naval frigate to Egypt as part of a military weapons contract worth over $5.7 billion. In a statement released Thursday, French President François Hollande welcomed the deal, calling it the jet's "first-ever export contract."
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is set to travel to Egypt's capital Cairo on February 16 to sign the agreement.
During a press conference in Brussels on Thursday, President Hollande made a slip of the tongue, telling the assembly that France had cut a deal with India. Showing signs of fatigue following all-night negotiations for a ceasefire in Ukraine the previous day, Hollande said France had "received confirmation that India would be buying Rafale [aircraft]."
He immediately backtracked, and apologized for his slip of the tongue. "I don't want to pre-empt anything because the Indian prime minister is coming over in April," he told journalists. "First, Egypt. I could also have said Qatar, perhaps because I'm so tired, but also perhaps because I'm hopeful."
Dassault Aviation, the company that makes the jet, has so far failed to sell any of the Rafale — a twin-engine fighter plane that can be equipped with a wide range of weapons. Like the TGV, France's high-speed train, or the Concorde, a turbojet-powered supersonic airliner that was in service from 1976 to 2003, the Rafale is considered by many a key symbol of France's cutting-edgeindustry. Like both of those, it is also a hard sell.
The Rafale emerged out of a collaboration in the 1980s between several European countries over the development of a multi-purpose fighter jet for Europe's armies. France left the consortium over disagreements with the UK, and went on to develop its own aircraft — independently from Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, who came up with their own jet, the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Dassault Aviation, which makes business and military aircraft, has developed six fighter jets since WWII. The Rafale's first prototype made its maiden flight in May 1991, but it took another 10 years to make the jet fully operational. The Rafale was intended to replace the many aircraft used by the French armed forces, and as such, was designed as a multi-purpose military plane.
"It's a twin-engine, multi-purpose aircraft: it can carry out air-to-air, air-to-ground, electronic warfare, and nuclear missions," former air force general Michel Asencio told VICE News. "An F-16 [the competing aircraft] is not as versatile, but the Rafale remains fairly expensive for some countries."
Unfortunately for France, high functionality means a high price tag, and attempts to sell the jet to other countries consist of a long list of aborted negotiations and abandoned deals. In 2013, a deal to sell the jet to Brazil fell through, after the country found the Rafale too pricey and opted instead to buy 36 Swedish Gripen jets.
While Egypt has agreed to a purchase, questions still remain over how the country's government will pay for its prize French jets. According to Sophie Pommier, director of Méroé Consulting, a firm that specializes on issues in the Arab nations, Egypt may have to rely on Saudi Arabia or another Gulf state to help pick up the tab.
"It's hard to imagine that Egypt would today adopt an arms policy without consulting Saudi Arabia, or without the country's financial intervention," Pommier told VICE News.
"That's the problem with the sale of the Rafale — it's a bit unclear who will finance the purchase. If Egypt defaults on its payments, who will pay?" she said. "Egypt's finances are shaky, its economic and financial situation is pretty bad. [I'm not sure] how they will honor the contract without outside help, which can only come from the Gulf States."
According to French monthly Les Échos, the two countries may use credit insurer Coface to finance up to half of the $5.7 billion sale.
Asencio described the deal with Egypt as "a breath of fresh air for the [French] economy, for industrialists, and for the air force." The contract will certainly come as good news to the French army, which has been forced to buy any unsold aircraft to ensure continuity within the production chain.
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