Brazil has announced that it has selected the Gripen, produced by Sweden’s Saab, as the new cornerstone of its warplane fleet. Saab won a contract highly coveted by defense and aerospace manufacturers around the world for the production of 36 warplanes carrying a price tag of $4.5billion. Not, in other words, pocket change.
Besides Saab, the other firms involved in the bidding war were Russia’s Rosoboronexport, offering its Sukhoi fighter, as well as Boeing with its F/A Super Hornets. But several analysts, I among them, had thought for years that it was France’s Dassault Aviation and its Rafale warplane that had the edge in the battle to provision Brazil’s fleet. That edge, we thought, greatly increased after the scandal broke out over the National Security Agency’s international espionage operations, including wiretapping the communication devices of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
The scandal brought U.S.-Brazil relations to a new low, and Rousseff postponed a trip to Washington that was scheduled to take place in October; the international media has widely blamed the NSA scandal for Boeing’s loss. But the Brazilian government’s election of the Saab is a bigger short-term loss to France than to the U.S.: for the past decade Brazil and France have been strengthening relations at the diplomatic, commercial and military level. There have been high-level meetings between the heads of state of these nations. For example, in 2004, then-Presidents Jacques Chirac of France and Lula da Silva of Brazil signed a declaration in Geneva in which they pledged to take joint action to fight global poverty (whether that remained committed to this pledge is debatable). In 2008, there was a meeting between President Lula and then-President Nicolas Sarkozy. This meeting is memorable for two reasons: it occurred on the little-known border between France and Brazil: French Guiana. At the time, France was confident that it would win the contract; during the 2008 reunion, President Sarkozy declared, “I said to the Brazilian president that we were ready for the Scorpene submarine to be built in Brazil, that on the question of combat aircraft like helicopters and fighter planes — I’m thinking of the Rafale — to be built in Brazil.” The most recent presidential meeting occurred in mid-December, when French President François Hollande met with Rousseff in Brazil. The stated goal of Hollande’s trip was to cement bilateral ties; it is hard to argue that lobby Brazil to pick the Rafale was high on Hollande’s private agenda. A Dassault win would have been a feather in Hollande’s damaged cap and another link forged between Brazil and France.
Five years later, Sarkozy’s (And Hollande’s) ambitions regarding the Rafale are kaput. But the bigger picture is far less grim. Military relations between Paris and Brasilia have been growing for the past years. Chief among all is Brazil’s construction, with French aid, of a nuclear-powered submarine, which has been a dream of the Brazilian navy since the country’s last military regime (1964-1985). France is also aiding Brazil with the construction of a number of conventional submarines — the Spanish defense news agency Infodenfensa.com reported this past June that sections for one of the new submarines had arrived in the port of Rio de Janeiro. Also in June, the French Ambassador to Brazil, Bruno Dalyne, signed an important agreement with the President of the Commissioner of Foreign Affairs and National Defense of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, Nelson Pellegrino. The accord entails the construction of a factory that will build Eurocopters in Brazil, helicopters originally developed by a Franco-German partnership and the Eurocopters main headquarters are located in Marignane, France. In addition, trade initiatives either at the bilateral level or as part of multinational blocs are strong between the two nations. According to Reuters, “France is the sixth-largest foreign investor in Brazil with businesses in the oil, auto, electricity and retail sectors.” Moreover, according to the European Commission, “the E.U. is Brazil’s first trading partner, accounting for 20.8% of its total trade and Brazil is the E.U.’s eighth-largest trading partner, accounting for 2.2% of total EU trade (2012).” Indeed, during Hollande’s December meeting with Rousseff, the two leaders reportedly discussed creating a free trade zone between the European Union and MERCOSUR, a South American trade bloc of which Brazil is a member.
So the Saab win, against this context, looks like (as noted) a short-term setback for France. But broader French-Brazilian relations, via trade, diplomatic and defense initiatives, are strong enough to survive it. C’est la vie, as they say.