will France come to the aid of Ukraine with Leclerc tanks?

A French Leclerc tank on an exercise in Romania.Beeld Vadim Ghirda / AP

“Nothing is ruled out.” President Emmanuel Macron said it on Sunday, and Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne repeated his words in the French Senate on Wednesday. The delivery of French-made heavy tanks to Ukraine is still officially discussed between the two countries. Likewise, there are still official doubts.

Now that Germany has changed tack, the question is all the more pressing for France: will it follow other Western countries in their military support for Ukraine by supplying its own Leclerc tankers?

The decision will be made one of these days, Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu announced on Wednesday evening. But, he added, the main expectations are not focused on Leclerc. “The reality is that the Ukrainians make different requests to us than the Leclerc tank.”

Pension reform

Compared to Germany, the internal pressure in France to come across with heavy tanks has so far been less strong. The domestic agenda is dominated by the announced pension reform, and the political opposition – from the far right to the radical left – is reluctant to arms shipments. Rassemblement national, the largest opposition party in parliament, has emphasized since the beginning of the war that the French should not bear the costs of that war. The left mainly warns that France should not appear to be a party to the conflict.

The French doubt can also be explained in several ways. President Macron sets three conditions for the delivery of French heavy tanks: it must not provoke an escalation, the aid must actually contribute something, and the delivery must not jeopardize France’s own defense capacity.

The latter is a critical point: the French Leclerc has not been produced since 2008. Currently, the country still has 220 of these tanks. What France supplies, therefore, is deducted from its own consumption stock. And that is already very limited, as was established last year in a parliamentary report on military capacity.

Doubts about effectiveness

The effectiveness of the Leclerc in Ukraine is also openly doubted. Supplying fuel and ammunition is a complicated logistical operation, as is the associated maintenance. This also applies to German and American tanks, but considerably more tanks of the German Leopard are available on European territory (about two thousand). Within Europe, France is the only country that has the Leclerc. “The exchange between French and Ukrainian experts is ongoing, especially to estimate the cost-benefit ratio of such a delivery,” the daily was quoted as saying. The world an “official source” on Thursday.

Earlier this month, Macron already promised the delivery of a lighter type of French-made armored car, the AMX-10 RC. This was presented as an important step: never before has such heavy Western European equipment been sent to the battlefield in Ukraine. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov also emphasized the importance of that delivery again in the newspaper on Wednesday Le Figaro. Reznikov suggested that France had started the process of supplying heavy tanks from the West. Should France go further in this, the minister added, it can of course count on the best possible reception from the Leclercs.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna arrived in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa on Thursday, where she will meet her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuliba. They will talk about military aid “appropriate to Ukraine’s needs,” Colonna announced. She emphasized that President Zelensky “for obvious reasons” would not have asked for Leclercs, referring to logistics, maintenance and stock. According to the French minister, Ukraine has wanted “since the beginning” the German Leopard 2, which Berlin promised to deliver on Wednesday.

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