Mali Strikes Showcase Rafale As Hollande Heads to UAE

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French President Francois Hollande will visit UAE on Tuesday, where he will discuss the possible sale of Rafale fighter jets to the Arab nation.

Under increasing pressure to reduce its budget deficit, France is eager to do more defense business beyond its borders, and anxious to secure a first export customer for the Dassault-built Rafale.

India agreed to buy 126 of the multi-role aircraft last year, but the deal has yet to be signed. Securing an agreement with UAE could prod New Delhi to ink the contract and potentially lead to other sales in the Middle East. But France's relations with UAE have been tepid in recent years, during which former French President Nicolas Sarkozy sought to sell as many as 60 Rafale aircraft to Abu Dhabi.

After taking office in May, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attempted to shore up ties with a visit to UAE in October, after which he said Rafale never came up. During Tuesday's visit to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Hollande is slated to meet with Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince and deputy supreme commander of UAE's armed forces.

In the meantime, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says Paris and New Delhi are making progress. Last week he met with India's Minister of External Relations, Salman Khurshid, who suggested details of the agreement are being refined.

“I can only say this to you: We know good French wine takes time to mature, and so do good contracts,” Khurshid said following the meeting, which marked his first trip to Europe since being appointed minister of foreign affairs three months ago. “The decision has already been taken, the contract details are being worked out. Just wait a little for the cork to pop and you will have some good wine to taste.”

Khurshid's comments followed disappointing news last month from Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, who said during a Dec. 11 news conference in Paris that plans to purchase 36 new fighters had been shelved.

When asked about Brasilia's competition, which includes Rafale, the Saab Gripen and Boeing's Super Hornet, Rousseff said the tender is on hold until the country's fiscal situation improves.

“We have thus delayed the choice of one of these three fighter planes and it may take some time depending on how long it takes our economy to recover,” she said. “We expect economic growth in the coming months at a rate that will allow us to resume selection and give it the priority it deserves.”

When asked if he was prepared to transfer the necessary technology to Brazil to secure the Rafale sale, Hollande sidestepped the question, pointing to existing Franco-Brazilian cooperation in other areas, including submarines and helicopters. On Rafale, he said the ball is in Rousseff's court:

“I hope it'll be French hardware, but I'm not making a proclamation at this point,” he said.

Whether or not Hollande will be making such a proclamation from Dubai tomorrow is anyone's guess, though given France's intervention in Mali over the weekend, the timing could play in Rafale's favor: On Sunday four of the fighters destroyed multiple targets held by militant separatists in northern Mali after Hollande on Friday vowed support for Malian forces fighting an advance on the central town of Konna.

The timing could also boost Dassault's confidence as Canada begins to shop for less-costly alternatives to the U.S. F-35. In December Ottawa informed Dassault and its four chief competitors -- Boeing, Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab and F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin -- that the Canadian government would be in touch early this year.

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