By Martin Quencez
French Chief of Defense (CoD) General Pierre De Villiers resigned today stating that “he could not guarantee the sustainability of the defense model that could ensure the security of France and the French today and tomorrow, and support the ambitions of our country.” This is the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic that the leading senior military officer presents his resignation to the president for reasons other than health-related, and his decision reveals a deep crisis of confidence between the political leadership and the military. It also constitutes the most important crisis in the young presidency of Emmanuel Macron, and could affect the future of his relationship with the armed forces.
The possibility of De Villiers’ resignation was largely discussed over the past week. Indeed, his decision concludes a series of incidents which started on July 11, when the government announced a cut of almost one billion euros in the defense budget for 2017. De Villiers strongly protested at the defense commission of the French National Assembly and was then severely reprimanded by Emmanuel Macron during the traditional presidential speech to the defense community of July 13.
Although Donald Trump’s visit and the military parade of the Bastille Day overshadowed these tensions, Macron’s support for the budget cut was difficult to swallow for the French military. Macron affirmed his intention to increase the budget during his mandate to reach 2 percent of the GDP by 2025, and spoke at length of the unsustainability of an overstretched French military, currently engaged in several demanding operations in France and abroad. During the first weeks of his mandate, the president restated his intentions to improve the working conditions of the soldiers, dedicated his first trip outside Europe to visit French troops in the Sahel, and spent several hours aboard a nuclear submarine. These mixed messages have only exacerbated the shock of the austerity measures, especially since the Ministry of Defense will primarily have to bear the largest part of the public spending cuts announced by the government.
The French military, often proclaimed as the currently most capable armed forces in Europe, is in fact in a challenging situation. The issue is not a matter of budget alone, but of the structural imbalance between the objectives and the means to achieve them. In recent years, the pressure has increased as troops were deployed in Mali, the Sahel, and even on the French territory as the country became officially “at war” after the 2015 Paris attacks. Armed forces are in the frontline of France’s fight against the terrorist threats, and participated actively in the U.S.–led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In parallel, the Defense Ministry has been asked to regularly reduce its budget and staff (more than 70,000 posts have been removed since 2008).
Emmanuel Macron tried to reassure the defense community by promising an increase of 1.5 billion euros of the defense budget in 2018, to reach 34.2 billion. This promise, however, was only partially encouraging given that the military planning law updated by François Hollande in 2015 already included an increase for 2018, and Macron remained unclear regarding the integration of the foreign operations’ costs in his calculation. Moreover, meeting the objective of 2 percent of GDP by 2025 would require to increasing the budget by over 2 billion euros every year in order to reach 50 billion euros. Considering that an additional effort may be necessary to modernize the French nuclear arsenal (2.5 billion per year starting in the late 2020s), important challenges ahead remain unanswered.
Beyond the budgetary debates, this crisis reveals larger issues for the future of France’s defense policy. First, the clash between Emmanuel Macron and Gen. De Villiers, who was appreciated and esteemed in the defense community, will leave a stain on the working relationship between the president and the military. The young president may have thought that reaffirming his authority against the protesting general could strengthen his position, but it could very well be counterproductive and foster defiance. This would be particularly unfortunate since Macron’s campaign and first signals toward the military had rather created a sense of hope and optimism in defense circles.
Second, by backing up the cuts announced by the Ministry of Economy in order to reduce public spending at all costs, Macron has made his political priorities clear to all. Following the 2015 Paris attacks, François Hollande declared that the “security pact” he had shared with the French people would always prevail over the economic “stability pact” that France is committed to respect toward the European Union. With this decision, Macron affirms that sending a message of economic responsibility to his European partners should be the priority, at least during the first year of his mandate.
Finally, the reaction of the president to the CoD’s declarations at the National Assembly highlighted a deeper issue regarding the role of the military in France’s strategic thinking. De Villiers’ opposition to the budget cut was perceived as unacceptable pressure on the political leadership. Instead of integrating his arguments in a larger strategic debate about France’s defense ambitions, Macron embraced a model which makes the military leadership in charge only of the technical conduct of military affairs. Given the complexity of the contemporary security environment, this choice may lead decision-makers to be less informed when designing future defense policies.
(The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.)
(Fellow and Senior Program Officer, Security and Defense)