News analysis

Macron suffers biggest test of authority as military head quits

French President's inexperience and alleged arrogance under the spotlight

PARIS • The resignation of the head of France's military has thrown the spotlight on President Emmanuel Macron's lack of experience and may prove to be the first major test of his governing style.

Following a public dispute with Mr Macron over cuts to the defence budget, General Pierre de Villiers, chief of the general staff, said on Wednesday that he "no longer feels capable of assuring the continuation of the military model" needed to protect France.

The resignation is a first by a head of the French military since Charles de Gaulle remade the Constitution in 1958, and represents one of the biggest challenges to Mr Macron's authority since he took office two months ago. It follows quarrels over a dearth of university places, a flip-flop on the timing of tax cuts and criticism of vague plans for funding municipalities. Le Monde newspaper called it the "moment of truth" for France's new President.

"It sends a negative signal and shows dissent at the helm of the state," said Ms Christelle Craplet, a pollster at BVA institute in Paris. "Macron is at a crucial moment: the end of the political honeymoon with voters and the beginning of the reality."

Mr Macron, 39, is the first French president who has neither been in the army nor done mandatory military service, which is defunct.

"Juvenile authoritarian behaviour has broken the trust" between the government and the military, said the retired general Vincent Desportes in an editorial published in yesterday's Le Monde.

Mr Macron's approval rating has fallen 5 points to 54 per cent this month, according to a monthly poll by BVA for Orange and La Tribune published on Tuesday.

Respondents with a poor opinion of Mr Macron cite his arrogance, authoritarianism, disregard for the working classes and excessive attention to communication.

Mr Emmanuel Macron and General Pierre de Villiers at last year's Bastille Day parade. Gen de Villiers' resignation this week is a first by a head of the French military since 1958, and represents one of the biggest challenges to Mr Macron's authority
Mr Emmanuel Macron and General Pierre de Villiers at last year's Bastille Day parade. Gen de Villiers' resignation this week is a first by a head of the French military since 1958, and represents one of the biggest challenges to Mr Macron's authority since he took office two months ago. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

KNOW WHO'S BOSS

If something puts the chief of the armed forces at odds with the president of the republic, the chief of the armed forces changes.

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON

INEVITABLE OUTCOME

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.

GENERAL PIERRE DE VILLIERS, who has resigned as France's armed forces chief, on the defence budget cuts.

While Mr Macron has shown a liking for the French military, travelling to visit troops in Africa and ostentatiously being filmed jumping onto a nuclear submarine, he was quick to censure Gen de Villiers when he complained about cuts to military spending behind closed doors to a parliamentary committee. But the remarks were later leaked to the press.

Speaking on July 13 at a reception for military personnel taking part in the next day's Bastille Day parade, Mr Macron shot back by saying "I am your chief" and "consider it undignified to expose certain debates in public".

"By saying he is the boss he exposes himself," said political scientist Bruno Cautres at Sciences Po in Paris. "So far, the situation is under his control, but if he fails to fulfil his promises on budget, unemployment and reforms in the months to come he'll be totally exposed and his posture will backfire."

Faced with a 2017 budget deficit that was overshooting targets agreed with the European Union, Mr Macron's government imposed spending cuts of €4.5 billion (S$7 billion) across all ministries, of which €850 million will come from the military, mostly by postponing equipment purchases.

Gen de Villiers said in an opinion piece in last Friday's Figaro newspaper that there is a "strong tension" between France's overseas military operations and "a complicated budget situation", and that "this gap is not sustainable".

"What matters now is how he manages the crisis - whether he can keep it as a isolated incident or if it spills over and becomes a political crisis," Ms Craplet said.

"Voters are more sensitive to what matters to their lives and a military spat isn't at the core of their concerns but Mr Macron should be careful of the snowball effect."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2017, with the headline 'Macron suffers biggest test of authority as military head quits'. Print Edition | Subscribe