Flight MH370 mystery: Will French probe clarify or frustrate?

France, known for being deliberate in air safety investigations, is taking the lead on identifying suspected Flight MH370 debris that washed up on Reunion Island, French territory.

Zinfos974/Prisca Bigot/Reuters/File
French gendarmes and police stand near a large piece of plane debris which was found on the beach in Saint-Andre, on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, July 29, 2015.

As the mystery surrounding the March 2014 crash of Flight MH370 comes closer to a resolution, the existence of a parallel French inquiry into the missing Boeing 777 raises the question of whether it will enhance, or unnecessarily delay, Malaysia’s own investigation.

France’s deputy prosecutor Serge Mackowiak announced Wednesday that there was a “very high probability” that a wing part – a flaperon – found July 29 on Reunion Island, a French overseas territory, did indeed come from the missing plane.

And on Thursday, Malaysian authorities said window parts and seat cushions also had washed up on Reunion Island.

But the French so far are proceeding cautiously with the news – unlike the Malaysian authorities, who said the wing debris “conclusively confirmed” it came from the aircraft – and have hesitated to provide any definite confirmation of the expert findings. As additional testing on the flaperon continues at DGA Techniques Aéronautiques in southwest France, the French have found themselves in a leading role in the crash investigation.

But while Malaysian authorities head the international effort to find answers into the cause and details of the accident, some wonder how France’s independent judicial probe will integrate into the overall investigation. Could adding yet another expert inquiry delay offering concrete answers for victims’ families?

France actually began a separate probe in March 2014, as it was entitled to do so after four of its citizens were declared to be among the 239 people on board flight MH370. However, the recent discovery of the flaperon on French soil mandated that France conduct an investigation under rules of the International Civil Aviation Organization. Three magistrates – specializing in terrorism and aviation accidents – were designated to launch the current judicial inquiry into the wing part.

Philippe Julienne, a French aviation expert, says the French probe will focus solely on the technical aspect of the crash, looking at the serial and part number of the flaperon to verify a match with the missing plane. “They need to be 95 percent sure that this part is from the plane crash,” he says. Experts will also use the wing part to try to assess how the plane went down.

Criticism of Malaysian authorities

While both France’s Mr. Mackowiac and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak stressed the fact that Wednesday’s findings could help provide a resolution to families still waiting for answers on the fates of their loved ones, the final results of the overall inquiry into the crash could be years away. France, historically, has hesitated to go public with air safety expert findings: More than six years after the crash of Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, the criminal investigation is still under way.

“The judicial team doesn’t want to be stampeded by false media representations of the accident,” says Francois Godement, a specialist in Asia and international relations and a professor at Sciences Po university in Paris. 

But if the final results of the flaperon findings could take some time, Malaysian authorities could potentially benefit from France’s help. Since the 2014 disappearance, Malaysian authorities have been criticized for their response: among other things, for failing to notify families of the crash before going public with the announcement as well as erroneously designating the site of the crash early on. Even their announcement regarding the flaperon Wednesday – via text message – was poorly received by many of the victims’ families.

According to the Associated Press, Jacquita Gomes – the wife of crew member Patrick Gomes – only learned about the results of the testing a half-hour before the Malaysian prime minister's announcement.

“Now that they have confirmed it as MH370, I know my husband is no longer of this world, but they just can't leave it with this one flaperon,” Mrs. Gomes said. “We urge them to continue searching until they find the plane and bring it back.”

A need for transparency

Malaysian authorities have been choosy about whom they work with in the crash investigation – supposedly eyeing the US’s National Transportation Safety Board with suspicion and preferring to collaborate with Australia and the UK. But many experts say it is in Malaysia’s best interest to remain transparent in their proceedings with the French.

Gustav Gessel, an expert in international security policy at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says a lack of transparency would backfire on both the French and the Malaysians.

“As Malaysian Airlines is under financial pressure due to the effects of two catastrophes [flight MH370 and flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in July 2014] in a relatively short amount of time,” he says, “I don’t think the Malaysians will make a political fuss out of it.”

Already the lines of communication appear to be open, as the Malaysian prime minister made his announcement of the flaperon just minutes before that of the French deputy prosecutor – announcing the results with even more certainty. This suggests, says Mr. Godement, that the Malaysians are receiving the same information as the French and other international experts, and that the two countries will continue to work together for the remainder of the inquiry.

“The French don’t have a vested interest in falsifying the findings or unnecessarily delaying the results, as the plane is not manufactured in France,” says Godement. “It just so happens that the debris washed up on French soil and that Toulouse has one of the biggest and best aerospace testing centers in the world.”

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