President Emmanuel Macron attempted Thursday to mend fences with the military after the resignation of the armed forces chief in a row over budget cuts for which France’s new leader has drawn criticism.
General Pierre de Villiers quit on Wednesday after being publicly slapped down by Macron for protesting the government’s plans to slash 850 million euros ($980 million) from this year’s defence budget.
His resignation capped a week-long spat, during which Macron made clear he would brook no insubordination as commander-in-chief, drawing a mix of criticism and respect.
On Thursday, he reassured the troops that they had his support despite the spending cuts.
Saying he “deeply respected” the military, which is engaged in operations against jihadists in Syria, Iraq and West Africa while also defending against attacks on home soil, Macron said: “I know what the nation owes you.”
He also repeated his promise to hike the defence budget by over a billion euros in 2018, in line with his promise to raise defence spending to 2 percent of GDP — about 50 billion euros — by 2025.
De Villiers, a highly respected figure who prided himself on speaking truth to power, riled Macron after telling a parliamentary committee last week he would not allow the armed forces to be “screwed”.
France’s youngest-ever president, who has sought to project an image of authority since taking office in May, responded forcefully on the eve of the annual Bastille Day military parade.
Rebuking 60-year-old de Villiers, without naming him, for the “undignified” public spat, he told a gathering of military top brass: “I am your boss”.
On Wednesday, he held that line, insisting it was “not the job of the head of the armed forces” to question the defence budget.
In his resignation statement De Villiers said the spending cuts threatened the military’s ability “to guarantee the protection of France and the French people.”
General Francois Lecointre, a 55-year-old veteran of the wars in the Balkans, has replaced him.
– ‘Shot self in foot’ –
The French opposition held Macron chiefly responsible for the row, which many commentators saw as the first misstep of the centrist’s presidency.
The conservative Le Figaro daily accused the president of “shooting himself in the foot” in behaving “like a little departmental head who is obliged to remind everyone who’s boss”.
The leftist Liberation newspaper said Macron’s “little authoritarian fit” could be a sign he was drunk on power and said he was time for him “to grow up a bit”.
Macron’s defence cuts — part of a 4.5-billion-euro reduction in spending aimed at bringing France’s budget deficit within EU limits — were viewed by the military as a betrayal after his strong show of support for the armed forces during his first weeks in office.
– Action man –
Macron’s first foreign trip was to Mali, where he meet French troops engaged in counter-terrorism operations.
Earlier this month, he was photographed being winched action man-style onto a nuclear submarine from a helicopter.
Retired general Dominique Trinquand, who advised Macron during his election campaign, said the row had clouded an otherwise “remarkable” debut with the military.
“This is a hitch that will probably be a bit difficult to get past,” he told AFP.
Nuclear-armed France and Britain are the biggest military powers in the European Union.
French forces are currently taking part in strikes against Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq and 4,000 French soldiers are involved in counter-terrorism efforts in west and central Africa.
At home, 7,000 soldiers are deployed to patrol the streets after a series of terror attacks that have killed more than 230 people since 2015.