Does the Defense lose the battle of public opinion?

In the middle of the Euronaval exhibition, the most important naval defense exhibition in the world which is being held this week at Le Bourget, the national media only seem to be interested in Germany's request asking all European countries to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, against the backdrop of the Kashoggi affair, and intervention in Yemen. The media treatment is based on a bias visibly hostile to the Defense industry and its ecosystem, revealing very widespread positions in public opinion, which generate a very low willingness of elected officials to take up these issues.

While the French defense industry is essential to public finances and the country's strategic autonomy, how can we explain this disenchantment among public opinion? Can we reverse the trend? Or should we resolve to let Defense lose the battle for public opinion?

Hostility of multiple origins weakening the foundations of Defense

Opposition to the Defense ecosystem can be broken down into 3 main families:

  • The 'idealists', basing their discourse on moral arguments from the pacifist movements of the 70s and 80s.
  • The 'informed', who consider that certain threats are negligible, and therefore do not need to be dealt with technologically and militarily. 
  • The 'economists', considering that investment in Defense is economically inefficient, and that it must therefore be limited to the strict minimum in order to favor other areas deemed more important.

It is remarkable to note that these hostilities are not limited to certain political philosophies, and are represented throughout French society, as well as in all political parties, although strong nuances can be identified: Idealists close to the extreme left , 'informed' close to the extreme right etc.

However, certain populations stand out in this panel, such as young graduates, and especially young engineers, who often favor Defense industries for their innovations and their working conditions which are considered attractive. Conversely, the number of journalists with real skills to understand and explain Defense can today be counted on the fingers of one hand in France.

In the Defense ecosystem, the industry concentrates the majority of unfavorable opinions, its image having been notably deteriorated in the past with sometimes dubious export contracts (Pakistani Agosta, Taiwanese Frigates, France-Africa, etc.) and by declarations, too. unfounded and damaging, many politicians in need of notoriety. Thus, many French people remain convinced that the Rafale is a much too expensive device, following the declarations of H. Morin, then Minister of Defense.

The armies seem spared from this hostility, with a very respectable public support rate of 84%. However, this significant membership is limited in practice, since the 3 armies are today struggling to maintain their numbers, encountering difficulties both in recruiting and retaining soldiers and reservists. In addition, for 20 years they have had all the difficulty in the world finding political support to support their budgets, which explains the current deterioration of military tools. 

An aggravating tradition of communication

It would be easy to blame politicians and the media for this situation. If they do indeed have a share of responsibility, it would be to ignore that of the communication of the Defense ecosystem, resulting from a tradition which was effective, but which is no longer so.

Thus, the National Defense industry does not absolutely consider communication with the public as a subject requiring particular attention, unlike Anglo-Saxon, Italian or even Russian and Chinese companies. For French Defense companies, the objective is to concentrate their communication actions towards the Defense ecosystem and towards a few specific identified targets, such as certain parliamentarians or political and industrial representatives, in France and abroad. 

Thus, public opinion in countries where French Defense companies face British, Swedish, American or German competitors very often consider French equipment as less efficient, more rustic, or more expensive. Just talk to Canadians or Swiss about the Rafale and the Gripen from SAAB to convince yourself. 

Certainly, not all countries have strong democratic processes, and carrying out communication operations towards the Egyptian or Qatari populations would not be of much interest. But in Europe, as in countries with democratic traditions, public opinion is taking on an increasingly decisive influence in the processes of acquiring Defense equipment. Thus, in France and throughout Europe, India, or Canada, to name a few, public opinion very often influences the positions of political elites, and therefore determines the power of the network of influence in favor of sustained offer.

In Belgium, at no time has France sought to present to public opinion the benefits of its proposal, particularly from the point of view of public finances. However, the offer made was unparalleled! Indeed, the French proposal allowed the Belgian air forces to equip themselves with 68 Rafales and implement them over a period of 20 years at a cost 75% lower than those of 34 F35As over the same period, i.e. a saving of €10 billion over 20 years for the Belgian federal budget. 

On the side of the military and the Ministry of the Armed Forces, the discourse is more effective, but remains within a very constrained framework, prohibiting for example the designation of potential state adversaries, or the use of too much enthusiasm regarding military equipment and actions. forces. However, there really is something to say! Does the traditional communication of the armies explain, in part, the lack of enthusiasm to join the forces? …

Win the hearts of the French to win back those of politicians

Hostile speeches therefore mainly benefit from the absence of a counter-speech, the objective of which would be to re-establish the facts, and to present the Defense ecosystem to the general public in a positive, dynamic and attractive way. To do this, it would be possible to consider a 3-pronged strategy:

  • An institutional component, aiming to put Defense back in the national debate, by communicating more explicitly on the threats, the needs of the armies, the men and their equipment. The documentary “Serval, a brigade in combat” shows that the know-how exists in France. It would be enough to amplify it and extend its distribution.
  • A technological component, aimed at creating French attachment to national defense industry equipment. Digital and audiovisual media are very suitable for this.
  • An economic component, to explain the role and weight of the Defense industry in the French economy, its role in social balance, and its effects in terms of regional planning.

An embargo on deliveries of Defense equipment to Saudi Arabia, therefore applying to Egypt and probably to the United Arab Emirates, would lead to a drop of €3,5 billion / year in Defense activity, eliminating 40.000 200.000 direct jobs, and 70.000 induced jobs. The 110.000 lost jobs would lead to a loss of €3 billion in social revenue, and an increase of €3 billion in social costs, as well as €1 billion in shortfall in tax revenue, i.e. a bill of €7 billion for the State. , more than 3,5% of its annual budget. We would therefore have to increase income taxes by almost 8% to compensate for these losses.

The effectiveness of the speech delivered will depend on its systematic ability to offer factual content as quickly and as close as possible to the targeted audiences. Digital media obviously make it possible to carry a significant part of this discourse. However, it seems necessary to extend their broadcasts, subsequently, to traditional media, particularly audiovisual, so as to increase their effectiveness and distribution in the management of long-term media dynamics. In addition, digital and audiovisual media lend themselves to linguistic portage, making it possible to industrialize communication actions in a global approach aimed at generating public support for countries in which French industry offers its equipment, or in which French armies are deployed.

Such a mechanism could, finally, prove to be an effective relay for bringing French proposals regarding European Defense directly to European public opinion, without media filter and/or national politics.

Conclusion

Defense has been undergoing in-depth reform in recent years, highlighting innovation, new maintenance solutions, prospective analysis and many other areas. However, without the support of public opinion, his image will continue to deteriorate, weakening with it the base of his political support. By a slight change in the communication strategy of industries and military and civil Defense authorities, it would be possible, at low cost, to provide a positive alternative discourse to hostile discourses, and thus initiate a profound change in perception. and public support for the Defense ecosystem. The resulting system would also make it possible to convey these same messages, or dedicated messages, to the public opinions of France's partners.

For an ecosystem representing more than €50 billion per year for the French economy, such a very limited initiative would present a very positive profit-to-investment ratio, in the short, medium and long term. However, we will have to agree to change current communication paradigms, which is always a complex exercise.

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