PARIS (AFP) – French leader Emmanuel Macron faced the biggest crisis of his young presidency on Wednesday (July 19) following the resignation of the head of the armed forces, whom he had rebuked for criticising defence spending cuts.
The row between Macron and General Pierre De Villiers blew up last week when the chief of staff told a parliamentary committee he would not allow the armed forces to be “screwed” by the government’s plans to slash 850 million euros (S$1.3 billion) from this year’s budget.
Macron, 39, slapped down the 60-year-old, five-star general, telling army top brass at their annual summer party “I am the boss” and that he deeply regretted that the budget dispute had been dragged into the “public sphere”.
In a newspaper interview at the weekend, Macron added that if there was a difference of opinion, “it is the chief of the defence staff who will change his position”.
De Villiers, who had been in the job for three years, said he felt he had no choice but to stand down.
“I no longer feel able to ensure the sustainability of the model of the armed forces that I think is necessary to guarantee the protection of France and the French people,” he said in a statement.
Macron named 55-year-old General Francois Lecointre, currently the top military adviser to the prime minister, as his replacement.
At a weekly cabinet meeting the president hailed de Villiers for his “remarkable service” and promised to hike the defence budget again in 2018, government spokesman Christophe Castaner said.
De Villiers is seen as one of the finest officers of his generation.
He is well-liked by the rank and file and said he believed it was his duty to inform politicians of his “reservations”.
In a Facebook “letter to a young recruit” last week he appeared to take aim at Macron, saying: “As everyone has their shortcomings, no one should be blindly followed.”
The row has provoked a debate about whether Macron had humiliated his military chief or whether he had no choice but to exert his authority just two months into his presidency.
A former head of the French air force, General Vincent Lanata, told L’Express news weekly on Tuesday he was “very shocked” by Macron’s “rant” at De Villiers.
The crisis was exacerbated by its timing, coming in the week of the July 14 Bastille Day military parade, where US President Donald Trump was the guest of honour.
During the parade, Macron rode down the Champs-Elysees avenue in an open-topped military vehicle, standing side-by-side with a grim-faced De Villiers as Trump looked on.
The cuts to defence spending were seen by some in the military as a betrayal by Macron given his strong show of support for the military.
In his first foreign visit after taking office, he visited French troops engaged in counter-terrorism operations in the West African country of Mali.
The cuts are part of a 4.5-billion-euro reduction in public spending that Macron’s centrist government has promised to bring down the budget deficit, as demanded by the European Union.
During his election campaign Macron pledged to boost defence spending to 2.0 per cent of gross domestic product by 2025, in line with Nato targets.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whom Macron beat in the presidential run-off, said the French military had lost “a man of huge value” in de Villiers and claimed his resignation showed “the very serious abuses and worrying limits” of Macron’s leadership.
Damien Abad, a member of the opposition Republicans, who sits on the parliamentary defence committee, blamed Macron’s “excessive authoritarianism” in a tweet.
The leader of the hard-left France Unbowed, Jean-Luc Melenchon, was also sharply critical, noting that de Villers’ budget remarks to parliament had been made behind closed doors and that he was duty bound to “respond frankly”.
Nuclear-armed France and Britain are the biggest military powers in the European Union.
French forces are engaged in military strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants in Syria and Iraq and 4,000 French soldiers are involved in efforts to stop the spread of extremism in African countries including Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad.
Soldiers also patrol the streets of French cities under a state of emergency introduced after a series of terror attacks that have killed more than 230 people since 2015.