French military head de Villiers quits over cuts

Mr Macron and Gen de Villiers at the Bastille Day parade last Friday Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Macron and Gen de Villiers attended the Bastille Day parade last Friday

The head of the French armed forces has quit after a clash with President Emmanuel Macron over budget cuts.

Gen Pierre de Villiers said in a statement he could no longer "guarantee the durability of the army model" that he considered necessary to ensure France's protection.

France's government last week revealed major cuts to bring its budget deficit below the level of an EU cap.

Mr Macron had said he would not tolerate dissent from the military.

In a speech at the defence ministry last week, he said: "It is not dignified to hold certain debates in the public arena."

Then in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, he said: "If the military chief of staff and the president are opposed on something, the military chief of staff goes."

But he had also said the general had his "full trust" as long as he "knows the chain of command and how it works".

The pair had been scheduled to meet on Friday to try to sort out their differences.

Gen de Villiers' replacement will be named on Wednesday, French media said.

He will be Gen François Lecointre, Agence France-Presse reported, citing government sources.


Gen de Villiers, 60, was infuriated by an €850m ($975m; £752m) cut in the military spending budget for 2017. Most was to come from cuts to equipment.

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Gen de Villiers told a parliamentary committee last week that the government should not mess with him on the matter, using a far stronger expletive.

The general, who was appointed head of the military in February 2014 and had his tenure extended by Mr Macron in June, had previously spoken out on budget cuts.

Analysis: Like a humiliation

Hugh Schofield, BBC News, Paris

There are plenty of tributes being paid to the just-resigned chief of general staff Pierre de Villiers. Plenty of important people seem to be taking his side in the affair. Not many are speaking up for the president.

One reason is that Emmanuel Macron had initially raised such hopes among the military. He promised a big increase in the defence budget over the next eight years. When his first act was to cut €850m for many - not just in the armed forces - that felt like a betrayal.

But it is also his method. When Gen de Villiers criticised the cut last week, it was at a meeting with deputies that was supposed to be off the record. His words were leaked, through no fault of his own. But the next day President Macron publicly upbraided him for speaking out of turn. And that felt like a humiliation.

Shortly after he took up his role he had threatened to walk out over cuts that were later shelved.

As he announced his resignation on Wednesday, he said he believed it was his duty to tell politicians of his "reservations".

Former chief of the French armed forces Henri Bentégeat told Le Monde that the president had the right to impose his authority, but added: "The way he did it will leave marks. You can't publicly question a military leader like that in front of his subordinates."

Mr Macron was elected president in May, defeating the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

What are the defence cuts all about?

President Macron wants to get the overall French budget deficit below a European Union cap of 3% of national income for 2017.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Most of the proposed cuts would be in military equipment

As part of that effort, the government has earmarked €850m in savings in military spending for the year. New equipment orders will be delayed or cancelled and the defence ministry is also being asked to take on the €1.3bn cost of foreign operations.

However, Mr Macron has also said he wants to raise defence spending in 2018 by €1.5bn to €34.2bn.

Furthermore, he has pledged to lift the defence budget from 1.77% of GDP to Nato's target of 2% by 2025. That would mean a sum of €50bn - at least a further €2bn each year, unprecedented in France.

It is unclear how these pledges played into Gen de Villiers' thinking, although he told MPs last week: "I know when I am being had."

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