By Robert Harneis –TDO- After a week of tension, General De Villiers, Chief of Staff of the French armed forces, has resigned only 19 days after being reappointed by President Macron. It is a unique event in the history of the 5th Republic founded in 1958.
The affair originated from the fierce criticisms that de Villiers made at a confidential meeting with deputies of a U-turn by the Macron government on military spending. After saying as candidate that he intended to dramatically increase such spending to bring it up to 2% of GDP in five years, the new President has accepted proposals by his ministers to decrease it immediately by 850 million euros. The General’s remark in answer to questions by Deputies, that he did not intend to be f***ed about by Ministers was immediately leaked.
Instead of attacking the Deputies who betrayed the confidence of the Chief of Staff, Macron chose to treat the comments as if they had been made in public. He demanded silent compliance from his chief military adviser, trumpeting in a patronizing speech to army commanders ‘I am your boss’ and without naming him, accusing the Chief of staff of being ‘unworthy’ by raising the subject in public. He later added in an interview with his favorite newspaper the JDD, ‘If there is a difference between the Chief of Staff and the President, the Chief of Staff changes. That’s how it is.’ Except that this is the first time it has ever happened.
After the President’s outburst, de Villiers hit back through his regular message to the troops on his official website with a text entitled ‘Confidence’ in which he pointedly commented – ‘I will finish with a recommendation… Beware of unthinking confidence in people; either given or received. It carries the taint of the easy option. We all have weaknesses, no one is good enough to be followed blindly.’ It was a subtly indirect reply to a notably self-confident young French President and his treatment of his Chief of Staff.
Shortly afterwards de Villers resigned, signing off on the same official website ‘In the present circumstances, I consider that I am no longer in a position to assure the continuation of the type of army that I believe in, to guarantee the protection of France and the French’
His staff then published a video of a minute and a half showing his departure from army head-quarters in front of hundreds of officers and soldiers, to long and warm applause.
In what he clearly hopes will be the last word on the episode President Macron commented to journalists ‘The new Chief of Staff will be a great head of the armed forces ‘and will not have a budget to defend because that is not the role of the Chief of Staff it is role of the Minister of Defense.’
Neither the President nor the Chief of Staff are political innocents. The President knows perfectly well that when questioned by Deputies any Chief of Staff must and will reply honestly what he thinks about future expenditure.
Equally, this is not the first time that de Villiers has publicly argued for more to be spent on defense given France’s extensive commitments in the Sahel, the Middle East and now in France itself as a result of terrorist attacks.
In March of this year he published an article in ‘Les Echos’ praising the then Socialist Minister Le Drian for protecting the military budget and arguing for an increase to 2% of GDP by the end of the five-year presidential term, coincidentally or not the proposal of the then candidate Macron. This displeased Macron’s opponent François Fillon, who was rightly more cautious about increasing military expenditure but on that occasion, not surprisingly, drew no criticism from Macron. Now that he is President the former candidate prefers silent obedience, whatever he does.
In hindsight, it would seem that de Villiers, now past normal retirement age, has deliberately sacrificed himself for the cause he believes in which is better funding for the military. He has done it in a way that will make it as embarrassing as possible for Macron to go back on his commitment to 2% for the armed forces. He will have been as aware as any other leading figure in French politics that Macron’s policy of greater European integration with its commitment to a reduced budget deficit will inevitably mean going back on his unfunded election commitments. He will also have been perfectly aware that his highly colored language would be leaked by indiscrete Deputies.
The affair is a major hiccup for the new government and has been something of a shot in the arm for the opposition. Macron is the first French President with no previous military service of any sort. He has made a big thing of his role as head of the armed forces with visits to the troops in Mali and being helicoptered onto a nuclear submarine. His love affair with the military is clearly over. It remains to be seen how damaging this spat will be for his popularity with the wider electorate.