Head of French military quits after row with Emmanuel Macron

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Pierre de Villiers says he no longer feels able to command sort of armed forces he thinks necessary, amid dispute over funding

The head of the French armed forces has resigned amid a bitter public row with the president, Emmanuel Macron an unprecedented dispute that has highlighted the strain on the French military, deployed in numerous operations abroad and at home.

The military chief, Gen Pierre de Villiers, said in a resignation statement on Wednesday that he no longer felt able to command the sort of armed forces that I think is necessary to guarantee the protection of France and the French people.

The row began last week when a government minister revealed in a newspaper interview that despite assurances that the French military budget would rise there would be a surprise 850m cut to military finances as Macron seeks to slash public spending.

De Villiers, 60, a famously straight-talking general who commanded French forces in Kosovo, then told a closed parliamentary committee that he would not let the government fuck with me on spending cuts.

Macron hit back by publicly slapping down the general at the annual summer military garden party, telling army generals in a speech: I am the boss.

Macrons speech surprised military observers and was seen by some as a shocking humiliation of De Villiers. Meanwhile, Macrons entourage said he was simply asserting the French presidents constitutional role as commander-in-chief of the army.

Gen Pierre de Villiers arrives at the lyse Palace in Paris on 13 July. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

The crisis was compounded by the timing: the row unfurled on the week of the 14 July Bastille Day military parade, in which Macron rode down the Champs lyses standing in an open-topped military vehicle with a stern-faced De Villiers by his side. The parades guest of honour, the US president, Donald Trump, looked on.

De Villiers insisted that throughout his career, he had believed it was his duty to tell politicians of my reservations.

The row has reopened the debate on whether the French army, whose funding has steadily decreased over the past three decades, is being asked to do too much with too few resources.

The French army, along with the British, is one of the biggest forces in Europe. It is deployed in large numbers across the world, in operations ranging from the fight against jihadists in Mali and the Sahel to Iraq, as well as having thousands of troops deployed on home soil to protect key sites against terrorist attack.

In a commentary that appeared in the conservative daily Le Figaro last week, De Villiers argued: Our armies have been under great pressure for several years … with 30,000 troops in operational roles, day and night. He complained that operations had had to be postponed or cancelled for lack of funds.

Macron has pledged to increase defence spending to 2% of gross domestic product by 2025, in line with Nato targets, which would bring it to 50bn euros.

Macron rides in a military vehicle on the Champs lyses after his inauguration on 14 May. Photograph: Michel Euler/Pool/EPA

He told the military gathering last week his pledge for future spending increases still stood. I know how to honour the commitments I make to our citizens, he said.

The row has also been viewed as Macron flexing his muscles and exerting presidential power. He told the Journal de Dimanche this weekend that if there was a difference of opinion over army spending, he would not personally give in, adding: It is the chief of the defence staff who will change his position.

Key voices in the French military were scathing about Macrons handling of the row and blamed him for the waste of an esteemed army chief brutally pushed to resign. Writing in Le Monde, General Vincent Desportes lamented what he called Macrons juvenile authoritarianism coupled with a general lack of understanding in the political world as to what the army and military do.

Macron, 39, is the first French president who has neither been in the army nor carried out mandatory military service, which was scrapped in the 1990s. Charles De Gaulle, Georges Pompidou and Valery Giscard dEstaing participated in the second world war, as did Francois Mitterrand. Jacques Chirac fought in the Algerian war. Nicolas Sarkozy and Franois Hollande both did compulsory military service.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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