French armed forces chief quits after clash with Emmanuel Macron over budget cuts

'I won't let myself be f***ed like that,' general was reported to have told parliamentary committee

Lizzie Dearden
Wednesday 19 July 2017 09:42 BST
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Emmanuel Macron with his chief of defence staff General Pierre de Villiers at the Bastille Day parade in Paris last week. De Villiers resigned days later
Emmanuel Macron with his chief of defence staff General Pierre de Villiers at the Bastille Day parade in Paris last week. De Villiers resigned days later (EPA)

The head of the French armed forces, General Pierre de Villiers, has quit his post after publicly clashing with Emmanuel Macron over proposed budget cuts.

In a statement from his office, Mr de Villiers said he had sought to maintain a French defence force able to do an increasingly difficult job within the financial constraints imposed on it.

“In the current circumstances I see myself as no longer able to guarantee the robust defence force I believe is necessary to guarantee the protection of France and the French people, today and tomorrow, and to sustain the aims of our country,” he said.

He added that, as a result, he had tendered his resignation to Mr Macron and that it had been accepted by the new President.

It came days after Mr Macron watched a show of France’s military force alongside Donald Trump in a grand parade marking Bastille Day.

The state visit, which saw the two presidents mark the centenary of the US’s intervention in the First World War, acted as a temporary distraction from dissatisfaction within the defence ministry.

Donald Trump salutes US troops in Bastille Day parade

There was widespread speculation that Mr de Villiers could step down in protest ahead of a formal meeting scheduled on Friday with Mr Macron, who is proposing €850m (£750m) worth of military cuts.

It is part of the French President’s programme aiming to achieve €60bn (53bn) of savings over five years – while upholding an election pledge to cut taxes.

Last week, his government announced plans to cut the defence budget for 2017 to bring France’s deficit below the EU limit of 3 per cent GDP.

Mr de Villiers was said to have told a parliamentary committee he would not let the government “f*** with” him on spending cuts.

“I won’t let myself be f***ed like that,” he said in the closed-door hearing, according to sources.

Emmanuel Macron (R) talking with Chief of Staff Gen Pierre de Villiers (C) after flying over Gao during a visit to Gao, northern Mali, on 19 May 2017
Emmanuel Macron (R) talking with Chief of Staff Gen Pierre de Villiers (C) after flying over Gao during a visit to Gao, northern Mali, on 19 May 2017 (AFP/Getty Images)

“I may be stupid, but I know when I’m being had.”

On Monday, a government spokesman told France Info that the French President and Mr de Villiers would “take the decision together” about the general’s future.

In his first defence policy speech last week, Mr Macron said he would not tolerate public dissent from the military.

“For me it’s undignified to wash dirty linen in public,” he told dozens of top army officers and their families in a traditional annual address.

“I have made commitments, I am your boss… what I like is the sense of duty, the sense of discretion that has taken our army to where it is today. And what I sometimes find hard to tolerate in certain sectors, I tolerate it even less when it comes to our military.”

Mr Macron then raised eyebrows with a newspaper interview in Le Journal du Dimanche, saying: “If the military chief of staff and the President are opposed on something, the military chief of staff goes.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, visits soldiers of Operation Barkhane, France's largest overseas military operation, in Gao, Northern Mali,
French President Emmanuel Macron, visits soldiers of Operation Barkhane, France's largest overseas military operation, in Gao, Northern Mali, (AP)

The former chief of the French armed forces, Henri Bentégeat, said that the way the new President was imposing his authority “will leave marks”.

“You can’t publicly question a military leader like that in front of his subordinates,” he told Le Monde.

But Mr Macron appears to have heeded calls for higher military spending by defence officials and opposition leaders by pledging to increase expenditure from 2018 onwards.

France’s defence spending is scheduled to reach €34.2bn (£30bn) next year, including €650m (£575m) for external operations, up from €32.7bn (£29bn) in 2017, Mr Macron said.

“It’s a considerable effort, considering the current context of budgetary constraints,” he added, after pledging to raise France’s total defence budget up to 2 per cent GDP from the current 1.7 per cent by 2025.

The unprecedented row and resignation has shocked France, where the military tends to refrain from political comment, earning itself the nickname “la grande muette”.

Jean-Jacques Bridey, chairman of the parliamentary committee on defence, was among those announcing his opposition to the cuts “while our men risk their lives every day”.

The far-right Front National and left-wing opposition groups also opposed the move as French troops continue to fight al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in Mali and remain stationed in countries including the Central African Republic, Chad and Libya.

Mr Macron restated his commitment to military intervention in Mali during his first foreign trip earlier this year, telling soldiers in the former jihadi stronghold of Gao he would be “uncompromising” in the fight against terrorism.

France is also a member of the US-led coalition bombing Isis territories in Iraq and Syria.

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