Saudi soldiers are training in military camp in France, says Amnesty

Combatant from the Southern Transitional Council fighting government troops in southern Yemen over control of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.
Combatant from the Southern Transitional Council fighting government troops in southern Yemen over control of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province. © AFP

According to rights group, Amnesty International, a private military training camp set up in France is training Saudi soldiers on arms used in the war in Yemen. Amnesty claims that the Belgian company running the training camp benefitted from government favours.


The military training camp is in Commercy, in eastern France, and is run by the Belgian arms manufacturer, John Cockerill. It was inaugurated by Geneviève Darrieussecq, the under-state secretary at the Army ministry, in 2019.

“I discovered a training centre specifically set up for Saudi soldiers in order to train them on arms formerly used in Yemen,” Audrey Lebel told RFI.

Lebel carried out the investigation for Amnesty International’s monthly, La Chronique. She says that former Defence minister, Gérard Longuet, greatly facilitated Cockerill’s presence in Commercy. His tenure was under Sarkozy’s presidency and former Prime minister François Fillon’s government. He is now a senator for the Meuse region and on the board of directors of John Cockerill since 2013.

It was Longuet who facilitated contact between John Cockerill’s CEO, Bernard Serin and the chief of staff of the Army, General Ract-Madoux in 2011. Serin received the Légion d'Honneur order of merit in January 2020.

Longuet told Amnesty that the deal between the French Army and John Cockerill was for the arms manufacturing company to buy and renovate existing facilities in return for the use of land and existing buildings on the site.

“I did not know it was possible for France to train, on its territory, soldiers who are involved in an ongoing conflict,” said Lebel.

“We tend to think that Yemen is far away and that, as French citizens, it does not concern us but this is happening here with tax payers’ money.”

France, Saudi Arabia and Yemen war

The controversy around French arms sales to Saudi Arabia is raised because various rights organisations and politicians claim that the arms are being used in the war in Yemen. A conflict which resulted in over 230,000 fatalities, including women and children, since it began in March 2015. Saudi Arabia leads a coalition fighting the Houthi rebels supported by Iran.

The United Nations described the ongoing war as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

An investigation published in April 2019 by the magazine Disclose showed that French arms are being used in the Yemeni conflict. Thus, in violation of the UN’s Arms Trade treaty designed to stop export of arms if there is a risk they contribute to human rights abuse.

According to Disclose, secret documents on the use of French arms in the Yemeni conflict were given to both President Emmanuel Macron and Army minister, Florence Parly. France has always denied its weapons were used in Yemen.

French incentives

In Commercy, the arrival of the Belgian arms manufacturing company raised hopes of redeveloping the local economy. Lebel wrote that a number of facilities were given to John Cockerill. The town’s former mayor, Bernard Muller, said that there was no need to issue a tender to “kick start existing activities”. The site was formerly used by French military.

Cockerill benefitted from a series of financial incentives over three to five years. Amnesty claims that the arms company gained over two million euros of public funds through various government schemes.

The argument put forward to explain the red carpet rolled out to Cockerill was employment. However, in Commercy, local actors say that the economic impact is not as important as it was promised to be.

For Senator Longuet arms sale are justified because they provide work for Belgians and French.

“I don't have the power to stop wars. When France sends Rafales [fighter aircraft] to India, it is not for the 14th July military parade, it is to transform people into charcoal," he said.

Lebel pointed at the secrecy surrounding Commercy's military training camp. She said she was told, off the record, that the Saudi trainees were confined there during the Covid-19 lockdown. But, on the record, local councillors say that they do not know whether military training has actually started.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app