France’s armed forces chief quits after budget clash with Macron

Pierre de Villiers says he could not guarantee country’s protection after planned €850m cut

General Pierre de Villiers: resigned as French army chief of staff in a dispute with President Emmanuel Macron over defence spending. Photograph: Etienne Laurent/Pool Photo via AP

General Pierre de Villiers: resigned as French army chief of staff in a dispute with President Emmanuel Macron over defence spending. Photograph: Etienne Laurent/Pool Photo via AP

 

France’s Emmanuel Macron was confronted with the first crisis of his presidency when the head of the armed forces resigned in protest at cuts to the defence budget.

General Pierre de Villiers’s departure followed an extraordinary public row with Mr Macron, who has styled himself as a lofty head of state in the tradition of Gen Charles de Gaulle but who is now grappling with daily concerns such as reining in France’s deficit.

Announcing his resignation, the first by a chief of the defence staff in 60 years, Gen de Villiers said the government’s plan to impose €850 million of cuts this year meant he was “no longer able to guarantee the robust defence force I believe is necessary for the protection of France and the French people, today and tomorrow”.

It is the first sign of the heavy opposition Mr Macron is likely to face as he seeks to cut €60 billion of public spending over five years to stay within the EU’s deficit limit, which is 3 per cent of economic output. Teachers and local government workers are also gearing up for a fight.

Gen de Villiers threatened to quit last week when this year’s defence cuts were revealed, reportedly saying: “I may be stupid, but I know when I’m being had.”

His admonition sent ripples through the French establishment; the military has a long history in France of refraining from comment on political decisions. The army is often referred to as “la grande muette”, “the great and silent” in French political life.

His remarks earned a public rebuke from Mr Macron, who in his first months in office has won public support by projecting an image of a more powerful presidency.

“For me it is undignified to wash dirty linen in public,” he said on Friday in an address to the army. “I am your leader,” he added. “I need no pressure, no comment.”

Barrage of criticism

Mr Macron sought to defuse the row, promising a €1.5 billion rise in military spending in 2018 to €34.2 billion, but Gen de Villiers resigned anyway, triggering a barrage of criticism of the president for alleged authoritarianism and a lack of understanding military matters. He is the first president since de Gaulle to neither serve in the armed forces nor do military service.

Retired general Vincent Desportes said the resignation was the greatest rupture between the French military and politician establishments since a failed coup d’état to overthrow de Gaulle in 1961.

In an editorial to be published in Thursday’s Le Monde newspaper, Gen Desportes accused Mr Macron of “juvenile authoritarianism” and said that there was a sense of “betrayal” in the armed forces.

France’s defence spending was expected to be 1.78 per cent of gross domestic product this year, down from 1.96 per cent in 2010, despite heavy commitments including operations in Syria and sub-Saharan Africa. Nato members are committed to spending 2 per cent.

The government said that Gen François Lecointre, who recently led French operations against Islamist militants in Mali, would take over as armed forces chief.

Mr Macron’s approval rating fell five points to 54 per cent in July, according to a monthly poll by BVA for Orange and La Tribune. Respondents with a poor opinion of Mr Macron cited arrogance, authoritarianism and excessive attention to communication.

Mr Macron, who is determined to restore the credibility of France on the European stage, campaigned with a promise to respect EU deficit rules. But this means €4.5 billion of cuts this year and more for 2018.

The president’s room for manoeuvre has been restricted by a warning from the state auditor last month that there was a €9 billion hole in the country’s finances.

Figures from the European Commission showed last week that France might soon be the only EU country in breach of its budgetary rules.

Teachers protest

Mr Macron’s resolve is being tested by the first signs of opposition to the cuts. Teachers are protesting about the cancellation of €331 million funding for higher education and research, while an announcement on Monday that local authorities will have to make €13 billion of savings by 2022, €3 billion more than expected, prompted fierce criticism.

François Baroin, head of the French mayors’ association and an opponent of Mr Macron, said the government could no longer keep “wiping its feet” on local communities.

Economists point out that the budget for 2017 is largely complete already and that Mr Macron is set to face an even steeper challenge after the summer, when the much tougher budget decisions for 2018 need to be taken.

This will come as he attempts to implement controversial reforms to the labour market, which are expected to be opposed by the powerful French unions.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017