PARIS --- In less than a week, France’s boy president has managed to lose whatever credibility he enjoyed with his military establishment, which like the rest of the country was first attracted by his novel and refreshing approach to politics, and then swept off its feet by a promise to quickly boost defense spending to 2% of GDP.
This was music to the ears of the armed forces, whose budget had only just begun to recover under Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, from a quarter-century of hefty spending cuts, even as their foreign deployments and commitments increased in both number and size.
A first reality check hit the military in June, when despite Macron’s promises the Treasury froze €2.6 billion of defense funds –- about 8% of this year’s budget – without drawing a peep from Sylvie Goulard, Macron’s short-lived first defense minister – sorry, his Minister for the Armed Forces, since Macron reverted to the defense ministry’s old name to illustrate his “military first” approach.
Goulard, clearly not at ease in the position, then invoked an investigation of her centrist political party’s funding, in which she was not even named, to resign after less than a month in the job.
She was succeeded on June 21 by a Socialist former junior budget minister, Florence Parly, who less than three weeks into the job was faced with another Treasury attack on her budget: this time a cut of €850 million, even as the fate of the frozen funds remains unclear.
Even as the Treasury launched its nefarious budgetary initiatives, France was fêting its new president, who with all the glee of an adventurous boy played with any new toy the military threw his way. Shortly after his official inauguration, he rode up the Champs Elysées in a camouflaged command car, and when he visited French troops in Mali two weeks later he rode in helicopters and tried out various bits of kit with evident interest. And when he visited a nuclear missile submarine, he flew out by helicopter and was winched aboard in spiffy naval fatigues.
While his two immediate predecessors – François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy – were the first post-war French presidents not to have seen combat, Macron is the first to have also escaped military service – it had been abolished by the time he came of age – and so knows little about the institution of which he is now commander-in-chief.
The military in France is known as the “grande muette,” (the great mute) for its habit of taking its marching orders without even a murmur of dissent. That is why senior military chiefs have gotten into the habit of writing anonymous opinion papers, signed with a martial-sounding pen-name, whenever they feel the need to make their opinion known.
So, it was with considerable panache that Gen. Pierre de Villiers, the chief of the defense staff, told the Defense Committee of the National Assembly during a closed July 11 hearing that “I will not let myself be screwed” – and this even before it developed that the cut would be of €1 billion, and not €850 million as previously stated.
“I would not be able to look my boys in the eyes if our funding is cut any more,” Villiers told the committee. “We have already given our all, all our all,” adding there was no reason for the defense budget to absorb the biggest cut of all ministries.
In fact, Villiers had been clamoring for several months for his budget to be increased, given the size of the anti-terrorist combat operations the French forces are conducting in Sahel-Saharan Africa and in the Middle East, in addition to all of their other overseas commitments and their armed security patrols throughout France.
Florence Parly, the newly-installed armed forces minister, did little else that make some comforting noises when the cuts were announced, so Villiers clearly considered he had to fight to support his troops in the field against degenerate, axe-wielding budget cutters whose first loyalty was to the European Commission, and not to the French troops risking life and limb to protect the nation.
Even worse, Parly announced on the morning of June 30 that Laurent Collet-Billon, the long-standing and widely respected Director-General of Armaments, would leave his position that same evening as his wontract would not be extended.
That is a gratuitously inelegant way to dismiss a senior civil servant after a 40-year career, and shows an incomprehensible lack of respect.
The cuts, of course, were decided by Macron to keep this year’s budget deficit under the EU-wide 3% ceiling, so boosting his credibility in Brussels and with the Eurozone’s financial ayatollahs in Germany, Finland and the Netherlands.
Understandably, that could not go down well with Gen. de Villiers, an outspoken soldier who had accepted the week before to stay on for a further year at Macron’s request, instead of retiring as he intended.
But this latest cut was not only seen as a betrayal; announced two days before the Bastille Day national holiday, when the military put on an elaborate military parade, and which is also seen as a sort of “soldier’s day,” it was seen as yet another vicious insult from the Treasury. The news that Villiers has threatened to resign grabbed the country’s attention, since French soldiers tend to put up and shut up.
President Macron’s reply didn’t take long. During a short July 13 speech at the traditional pre-parade reception at the Armed Forces Ministry, he snapped that “It is not dignified to debate certain subjects in public.
“I have made commitments. I am your chief. I have made commitments to our fellow citizens and to the armed forces, and I know how to keep them. And, in this respect, I don’t need any reminders or any comments,” he concluded.
Except that he does, because instead of his promised boost in defense spending Macron cut defense spending to a substantial degree.
Although he did not name Villiers, Macron’s meaning was unmistakable, and was seen as such by everyone present at the reception as well as by the talking heads on France’s four 24-hour news networks.
Surprisingly, Gen. de Villiers didn’t resign on the spot, and over the week-end it developed that Macron had called him to a meeting on July 20 when his firing is plausible.
And, in case he hadn’t been clear enough, Macron revisited the issue in an interview published July 16, in which he said that “If something opposes the chief of the defense staff to the President, then the chief of the defense staff is replaced,” adding a cryptic “the interests of the armed forces take precedence over those of industry.”
A pig’s breakfast
Having exploded his relations with the military establishment in less than a month, Macron also managed to get the defense industry to gnash its teeth, as it belatedly realized that Macron’s promises to boost defense spending, and thus orders of new kit, were much less reliable than they expected.
Assuming his new role as chairman of the French aerospace industries group, GIFAS, Dassault Aviation chief executive Eric Trappier said in an opinion piece published July 11 in the Paris financial daily Les Echos that France must not relax its efforts in the field of defense R&D.
And, in a July 12 TV interview, he asked the question that is on the lips of many French soldier and defense industry worker: “is staying under the 3% deficit ceiling more important than our security?”
Both remarks were abundantly circulated on social networks:
Shooting from the Hip
No doubt still dizzy after his remarkable electoral success, Macron seems determined to play out his mandate by his own rules, convinced that he alone knows what is best for the country. But he has apparently overlooked the fact that allies may not prove as susceptible to his charm as his voters did.
But none of his early political decisions were greeted with as much dismay as the upheaval of defense alliances that he sprang on the country after hosting a meeting of the French-German defense council with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in July 13.
These new initiatives, which came as a bolt out of the blue, include joint development of a next-generation fighter, of a twin-engined armed drone, of a new maritime patrol aircraft as well as future versions of the Tiger attack helicopter. In the field of ground weapons, Macron and Merkel agreed to jointly develop a next-generation artillery system, and to draw up “a common vision of our industrial ambition in land armament systems.”
None of these initiatives had been previously discussed, and took the two countries’ defense industrialists by surprise.
But, more than that, these new projects clearly signal the end of the Anglo-French defense alliance as set out in the 2010 Treaty of Lancaster House, as well as the end of several bilateral programs, such as the Future Combat Air System unmanned combat aircraft and, more critically, on missiles.
France and the UK had agreed to truly combine their guided missile industries around MBDA, in which both countries have large stakes, to the point where each agreed to rely on the other for key components and technologies that they abandoned on a national level.
Such a shift in alliances has already happened in the post-war period, as British and German interest in defense rose and waned, but this is the first time that France would abruptly drop one ally and put all her eggs in the other’s basket.
And, obviously, retract her signature of a treaty -- but maybe Macron doesn't know what his German initiative involves.
It is also dangerous, both financially – because all the money invested in Anglo-French projects will be thrown away – and politically, because Merkel faces a general election in October, because German public opinion has always frowned upon anything military, and because there is no guarantee Merkel will be able to make good on her commitments.
Macron has also signaled that he is open to allowing the European Union to take the lead on defense affairs – in itself, a very questionable decision – which would require an unprecedented abandonment of national sovereignty that may not go down well with Eurosceptic French voters.
Furthermore, Macron has agreed to give Germany the leadership of the new Eurodrone program, and accepted a twin-engined design to comply with German requirements. In terms of combat aircraft, the final communiqué implies a 50/50 sharing of a field where France currently enjoys total autonomy, while Germany has no more than a one-third share of the Eurofighter program.
Macron may not be aware of the fact that, in the 1990s, a previous French President allowed Germany’s Daimler-Benz Aerospace to take over France’s Aérospatiale-Matra for the sake of the bilateral relationship, which eventually led to the decade-long infighting at the top of the resulting Airbus group, and to France's sidelining.
So, in a few short days, France’s boy president has managed to alienate his armed forces and his defense industry and France’s long-standing British ally, while marginalizing his “armed forces minister” at a time when his country is at war on the home front, in Africa and the Middle East.
He now has 4 years and 10 months left to show that he is not simply drunk on power, and that he is better able than his predecessors to manage his country’s military affairs.
A tall order for someone who seems to be floating on a cloud of his own making.
-- July 17, 2017: Entire story edited for style after posting