The biography of French arms dealer Bernard Cheynel entitled Marchand d’armes (“Gun Sellers” in English) is a book that will make you quit the world and retire on a farm deep into the woods, never to be seen again.
Surprisingly, the book isn’t as much about guns as it is about power, greed, and corruption.
Cheynel explains how he went from horse trainer to one of the biggest independent arms dealers in the world.
As disgusted as I was by the tale, this book gives several lessons on human nature, politics, and success when you come from nothing.
Here are the five lessons that I learned.
Lesson 1: Be Nice to People
Bernard didn’t grow up in a privileged family. He didn’t attend university.
But he had two advantages and exploited them extremely well.
First, he was good with people — Bill Clinton’s charisma type of good (and with an equal fondness for girls in their early twenties.)
The second advantage was that his mother lived in Deauville, a trendy coastal city in the north of France where the Gotha of Europe (and the rest of the world) came to spend their holidays.
And this is how 21-year old Bernard started dating the lover of a billionaire. She introduced him to other billionaires and powerful people such as the boss of the French Secret Service, which kept a benevolent eye on Bernard throughout his entire career.
Bernard, with his charm, became part of their little circle.
Quickly, he got a job as a horse trainer and worked there for five years.
Lesson 2: Fight For What You Want
One day, as he was drinking at the bar of a hotel, he met his wife, Princess Isabelle Davallou-Kadjar, from Iran’s Shah family.
They started dating, which didn’t please his father-in-law (the brother of the Shah). The latter sent two men to scare Bernard and get him to break up with the Princess, soon to be his wife.
But Bernard wasn’t impressed.
Since the Shah’s family caused him trouble, he went to offer his services to their sworn enemy, Ayatollah Khomeini, exiled in France.
They accepted, and Bernard became a part of the group that would soon rule Iran.
Lesson 3: Forget About the Impostor Syndrome
In 1979, Bernard flew with his Iranian friends to Iran as the Shah had been dethroned by a religious revolution and the Ayatollah was welcomed back.
One day, he got a call from Marcel Dassault, French billionaire, entrepreneur, and founder of one of the biggest arms companies in the world (called Dassault).
Marcel asked Bernard for some help penetrating the Iranian market.
Bernard accepted and got his first arms deal by facilitating the sales of 60 jets to Iran.
One deal was all that Cheynel needed. He was addicted, and he wouldn’t stop.
Some years later, he learned that Liberia’s dictator Samuel Doe wanted a helicopter but had no money to pay for it.
He also knew that the south of Morocco (called Occidental Sahara) was agitated by a movement for independence that Algeria, an enemy of Morocco, supported.
So, he made a plan.
He offered Algeria to pay for Samuel’s helicopter if the latter recognized the Occidental Sahara as being independent.
Liberia did, Algeria paid, and Samuel got his helicopter.
And this is how Cheynel engineered international politics with worldwide consequences.
What’s extraordinary about Bernard is that he never doubted himself. He’d call billionaires and heads of states his friends and would talk to them with as much natural as to the receptionist of a 5-star hotel.
Later in his life, he befriended and negotiated deals for Pakistan’s Benazir Buttho, India’s Indira Gandhi, and even Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (ironically, all of them were assassinated…).
Lesson 4: Man Is Inherently Corrupt
Reading the book, I couldn’t figure out what was Bernard’s role in gun sales.
Why couldn’t gun companies call governments and negotiate directly with them?
Why was an intermediary needed?
In one word: corruption.
Before the year 2000, bribes to foreign dignitaries in the arms industry in France weren’t only tolerated, they were legal.
The only problem was that someone had to be there to distribute them.
That someone was Bernard.
Here’s how it worked.
Dictator A arrives in power and wants to keep it. As such, he needs to buy some guns for his army which will enable him to make bank at the same time.
Dictator A contacts someone like Bernard (actually, Bernard offers his services) and exposes his budget and desired guns. Bernard flies back to France and contacts the arms company.
A deal is made. The dictator, I mean, his country, pays the price of the arms plus a 6–15% commission, included in the price of the deal.
The arms company in France will keep 1-5% of this commission for itself (I mean, its CEO) and pay the remaining 5-10% to Bernard.
Bernard will keep 1–2% for himself and will pay back (in cash) the rest to…dictator A.
And this is how the worldwide elite stole their people during the major party of the 20th century.
Bernard always gave back commissions in all of the countries he made deals in (Iran, India, Pakistan, Libya, Belgium, Netherlands…), all but one: France.
Not distributing commission in France was his only insurance that the French political power, which changes roughly at every election, would leave him alone.
As such, Bernard, despite corrupting the worldwide elite under everyone’s eyes, never worried about ending up in prison.
Lesson 5: Appeal to People’s Selfish Interest and You Will Be Unstoppable
Cheynel used the same plan for all the deals he made.
It always worked, and he got many deals.
However, accessing dictators wasn’t that easy. Bernard had to go through gatekeepers like generals, aids, and secretaries that he had to corrupt too.
Thankfully, he was an expert in his craft.
In exchange for a meeting, he would invite generals on holiday to France. During that time, he would take them to the best parties in the country, on the best trips in the best places, and to the best hotels where he would offer them…girls.
When Bernard wasn’t looking for deals, he was out looking for pretty girls. As soon as he saw one, he’d chat her up, invite her out in his white chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, and he’d party with her until the end of the night — all drinks included.
He would eventually explain her what he did for a living, and offer her “a job”: sleeping with the men Bernard would bring them…”but only if they wanted to…!”
He’d take these girls, up to four at a time, to the restaurant with the generals he had invited to France.
The girls would decide who would spend the night with the general.
And that’s how Bernard Cheynel almost got what he wanted.
Bernard Cheynel had one gift: he was good with people.
Putting such a talent to the service of the ugliest parts of human nature is, to my opinion, a tragedy.
But Cheynel didn’t see it this way.
This book made me physically sick for three days.
It also taught me two precious lessons.
The first lesson is that your network is a valuable asset. Bernard himself writes so at some point. His “friends” was his only tool, he explains.
At the end of the book, he detailed how he could create networks from nothing, anywhere in the world.
First, he would ask people he knew to introduce him to the people he wanted to meet. If it wasn’t possible, then he would fly to the capital of the country, and tour the best and most expensive restaurants in the city.
He would talk with the owners, explain who he was, and told them the type of people he needed to meet.
He’d eventually get info about who was eating what where, and he’d simply ask the owner of the restaurant for an introduction.
Simple, efficient, this enabled him to create networks pretty much everywhere in the world.
The second lesson is that those at the top are not fighting for you. No one does, and no one ever will. Those that tell you the opposite are wrong (or simply lying.)
In a way, it only confirmed what we already knew.
The only person in the world you can really count on is yourself.
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