French government faces legal pressure over arms sales to Saudi, UAE

PARIS (Reuters) - Two rights groups campaigning for the French government to halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said on Sunday they were taking their case to France’s highest legal authority.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting at the start-up incubator Soho3Q, in Beijing, China, January 9, 2018. Picture taken January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

President Emmanuel Macron has come under pressure from rights groups to scale back ties with a Saudi-led coalition that has intervened in Yemen’s civil war, where more than 10,000 people have been killed since 2015.

Droit Solidarite, a legal NGO, and Aser, which specializes in armament issues, demanded in March that export licenses to Saudi Arabia and the UAE be withdrawn. They gave Prime Minister Edouard Philippe a two-month ultimatum.

They have had no response, so the groups said they would present a legal challenge on Monday to the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest legal authority, which advises the government on legislative matters and arbitrates on public policy issues.

“It will be up to (Council of State) to decide on the legality of the export license authorizations issued by the prime minister,” ASER et Droit Solidarite said in a statement.

The two argue that France is violating national and international law by selling arms that are being used in the conflict in Yemen. The United Nations and rights groups accuse the coalition of targeting civilians, which amounts to a war crime, a charge the coalition denies.

The French government was not immediately available for comment.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are major purchasers of French arms, and the country's top defense firms, such as Dassault AVMD.PA and Thales TCFP.PA have big contracts in the Gulf.

The Saudi-led coalition is fighting on the side of an internationally recognized Yemeni government against the Iran-aligned Houthi group.

Since the war began, at least three million people have been displaced and Yemen has been plunged into a humanitarian disaster.

Unlike many if its allies, in France - the world’s third-biggest arms exporter - export licensing procedures have no parliamentary checks or balances, and are approved through a committee headed by the prime minister.

Some European states, including Germany, have curtailed links with the Saudi-led military coalition, though France, Britain and the United States have not followed suit.

Reporting by Sarah White, editing by Larry King