French mil­i­tary chief re­signs

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

France’s top mil­i­tary chief re­signed yes­ter­day af­ter a war of words with Em­manuel Macron over bud­get cuts that posed the big­gest test yet of the new pres­i­dent’s au­thor­ity. The row be­tween Macron and Gen­eral Pierre de Vil­liers erupted 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 ($980 mil­lion) from this year’s bud­get.

Macron, 39, slapped down the 60-yearold five-star gen­eral in front of army chiefs at their an­nual sum­mer party, say­ing “I am the boss” and that he deeply re­gret­ted the bud­get dis­pute had been dragged into the “pub­lic sphere”. In a Sun­day news­pa­per in­ter­view, Macron said that if there was a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion, “it is the chief of the de­fense staff who will change his po­si­tion”. De Vil­liers, who had been in the job for three years and was highly pop­u­lar with the rank and file, said 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. Gen­eral Fran­cois Le­coin­tre, 55, cur­rently the top mil­i­tary ad­viser to the prime min­is­ter, was named as his re­place­ment. At a weekly cab­i­net meet­ing Macron hailed de Vil­liers for his “re­mark­able ser­vice” and called Le­coin­tre a “hero, who was rec­og­nized as such in the army” for his ser­vice in the Balkans. The pres­i­dent promised to hike the de­fense bud­get again in 2018.

Seen as one of the finest of­fi­cers of his gen­er­a­tion, de Vil­liers’ de­par­ture met with howls of in­dig­na­tion from the op­po­si­tion. The leader of the hard-left France Un­bowed, Jean-Luc Me­len­chon, called it an “enor­mous mis­take” on Macron’s part. De Vil­liers’ leaked re­marks about the bud­get had been made be­hind closed doors to a com­mit­tee that ex­pected him to “re­spond frankly”, Me­len­chon ar­gued. Far­right leader Marine Le Pen, whom Macron beat in the pres­i­den­tial run-off, said the French mil­i­tary

had lost “a man of huge value” and claimed de Vil­liers’ res­ig­na­tion showed “the very se­ri­ous abuses and wor­ry­ing lim­its” of Macron’s lead­er­ship.

De Vil­liers had re­peat­edly com­plained that the mil­i­tary was over­stretched and said he saw it as his duty to in­form politi­cians. In a Face­book “let­ter to a young re­cruit” last week, he wrote: “As ev­ery­one has their short­com­ings, noone should be blindly fol­lowed.”

The op­po­si­tion ac­cused Macron of hu­mil­i­at­ing his mil­i­tary chief but Prime Min­is­ter Edouard Philippe told par­lia­ment yes­ter­day de Vil­liers could not, as a sol­dier, “hon­or­ably con­test his boss’s choices”. Re­tired Gen­eral Do­minique Trin­quand, who ad­vised Macron dur­ing his cam­paign, said the row had cast a pall over his other­wise “re­mark­able” start in of­fice. “This is a hitch that will prob­a­bly be a bit dif­fi­cult to get past,” he said in an in­ter­view with AFP.

Macron’s de­fense cuts - part of a 4.5-bil­lion-euro re­duc­tion in spend­ing aimed at re­duc­ing France’s bud­get deficit - have been viewed by the mil­i­tary as a be­trayal af­ter his strong show of sup­port for the armed forces. On his first day as pres­i­dent, he vis­ited sol­diers in­jured in over­seas op­er­a­tions and his maiden for­eign trip as leader took him to Mali to meet French troops en­gaged in counter-ter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions.

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 honor. Dur­ing the pa­rade, Macron rode down the Champs-El­y­sees av­enue in an open-topped mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle with a grim-faced de Vil­liers as Trump looked on.

Macron says the belt-tight­en­ing is tem­po­rary and that he re­mains com­mit­ted to boost­ing de­fence spend­ing to 2.0 per­cent of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct by 2025 (around 50 bil­lion eu­ros), in line with NATO tar­gets. Nu­cle­ar­armed France and Britain are the big­gest mil­i­tary pow­ers in the Euro­pean Union. French forces are cur­rently en­gaged on three fronts. French jets are tak­ing part in strikes against Is­lamic State ji­hadists in Syria and Iraq. Some 4,000 French sol­diers are in­volved in ef­forts to stop the spread of ex­trem­ism in West Africa. And 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. — AFP

Pierre de Vil­liers

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