Why France's Top General Quit

The move came after days of back and forth with President Emmanuel Macron over proposed budget cuts for defense.

In happier times. (Stephane Mahe / Reuters )

The top French general resigned Tuesday following a clash with President Emmanuel Macron over proposed cuts to the defense budget that General Pierre de Villiers said would no longer “guarantee the robust defense force” needed to protect France.

“In the current circumstances I see myself as no longer able to guarantee the robust defense force I believe is necessary to guarantee the protection of France and the French people, today and tomorrow, and to sustain the aims of our country,” he said.

The move wasn’t unexpected and followed days of public back-and-forth between the two men—unprecedented in French politics. At issue is the plan announced last week by Macron to cut the equivalent of $980 million to the defense budget for 2017. It was needed, the government said, to meet the European Union’s requirement that its members states maintain their budget deficit at 3 percent of gross domestic product. Most of the cuts were directed at military equipment.

“I know when I am being had,” de Villiers reportedly told a parliamentary panel in off-the-record remarks that were leaked to the media, though Le Monde reported the general also used much stronger language to describe the cuts.

De Villiers, who became chief of defense staff in 2014 and whose tenure was extended by Macron last month, then reiterated those sentiments in a Facebook post. Although the post did not name Macron, the public expression of criticism—“Watch out for blind trust ... Because no one is without shortcomings, no one deserves to be blindly followed.”— was seen as highly unusual in a society where the military is highly regarded but known for being silent.

Macron wasn’t happy. First, at a speech at the French Defense Ministry, he said: “It is not dignified to hold certain debates in the public arena.” Then, in an interview with Journal du dimanche, he elaborated: “I am the boss,” adding if there was a difference of opinion between the president and his top general, “it is the chief of the defense staff who will change his position,” not the president.

Announcing his resignation Wednesday, de Villiers, who was appointed chief of defense staff in 2014, said it was his duty to share his “reservations.” Hours after his resignation, the government named General François Lecointre the new head of the military. The career officer served in the Balkans in the 1990s and more recently headed the EU’s military training mission in Mali.

Although Macron still enjoys high approval ratings after two months in office, the actions that led to de Villiers’s resignation are being widely criticized.

“The way he did it will leave marks,” Henri Bentégeat, a former head of the country’s armed forces, told Le Monde. “You can't publicly question a military leader like that in front of his subordinates.”

Part of the problem was the manner in which Macron, who had campaigned on, among other things, a massive increase in the defense budget, directed his criticism at de Villiers. The general’s remarks to the French parliamentary committee were off the record, but leaked to the media. Macron’s subsequent criticism of him, however, was public.

Macron was elected on a pledge to be a tough president who would make the necessary difficult choices to remake modern France, but it has become quickly clear that his style has chafed even his supporters. He has said his thoughts are “too complex” for the media to understand, appeared to insult African states for their birth rates, and made a joke about the types of boats used by migrants. But it’s his dispute with the military that may hurt him in the long term.

“It’s clear today that the executive cannot bear a situation where its top public servants have a view of things that is different from the political view put together by the Elysee,” General Vincent Desportes, a former head of the country’s premier military school, told Reuters, referring to the presidential palace. “It’s not Erdoganism [a reference to the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan], but it’s not far off.”