French military chief resigns over defence cuts row with Macron

General Pierre de Villiers said he felt he had no choice but to resign after heated row with France's new president

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) shakes hands with people as he arrives in Saint-Martin d'Arc, on July 19, 2017 to meet former cyclists and follow the 183 km seventeenth stage of the 104th edition of the Tour de France cycling race between Le La Mure and Serre-Chevalier, French Alps.  / AFP PHOTO / JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT

Emmanuel Macron, the new French president, suffered a damaging blow to his new administration when the head of the armed forces quit on Wednesday in protest at a cut in the defence budget for this year.

A heated row between General Pierre de Villiers and the 39-year old spilled into the public domain shortly after it emerged one of the first acts of the new government would be to lop €850 million euros from military spending.

As France remains under a state of emergency following a spate of terror attacks, has extensive overseas commitments and is already below Nato's 2 percent target for defence expenditure, the security establishment is furious with the new leader.

In a resignation statement, General de Villiers said: “I no longer feel able to ensure the sustainability of the model of the armed forces that I think is necessary to guarantee the protection of France and French people.”

The disagreement began when the government revealed proposals to cut the 2017 defence budget by as part of plans to bring down France’s fiscal deficit.

It is part of Macron’s wider target to make €60bn worth of savings over five years while at the same time keeping an election pledge to cut taxes.

However, last month France’s state auditor warned of a €9bn hole in country’s finances and that an additional €4bn of new savings had to be made this year in order to meet the EU target.

De Villiers, 60, responded by telling a parliamentary committee he wouldn’t allow the armed forces to be “screwed” by the government.

It was during this meeting he is reported to have said: “I may be stupid, but I know when I’m being had.”

In what has so far been the biggest crisis of his two-month presidency, Macron, 39, had rebuked the general for dragging the budget row into the “public sphere”.

He told army top brass “I am the boss” at their annual summer party, and later said in a newspaper interview that if there was a difference in opinion, “it is the chief of the defence staff who will change his position”.

De Villiers’ resignation has sent shockwaves through France. The aristocrat - who served in Kosovo and Afghanistan - is a highly regarded chief of staff and widely respected by the rank and file.

The brother of former centre-right politician, he said he felt that, throughout his career, he believed it was his duty to tell political leaders “of my reservations”.

Genera Vincent Lanat, former head of the French air force, told L’Express news weekly on Tuesday that he was “very shocked” by Macron’s “rant” at De Villiers.

And Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader beaten by Macron in the presidential campaign, said the French military had lost “a man of huge value” and claimed the resignation showed “the very serious abuses and worrying limits” of the president’s leadership.

Damien Abad, member of the opposition Republicans who sits on the parliamentary defence committee, tweeted that Macron’s “excessive authoritarianism led to the resignation”.

Less than an hour after the announcement of De Villiers’ resignation, Macron appointed Francois Lecointre, a member of Prime Minister Edouard Phillippe’s staff who served in the army in Bosnia, as his replacement.

The deep cuts to the defence budget have angered the military, not least because Macron made a point of showing support for the armed forces since coming to power in May.

He visited French troops engaged in counter-terrorism operations in Mali, West Africa, in his first foreign visit after taking office.

Nuclear-armed France and Britain are the biggest military powers in the European Union. French forces are engaged in military strikes against Isil in Syria and Iraq and 4,000 French soldiers are involved in efforts to stop the spread of extremism in African countries including Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad.

De Villiers was also head of Operation Sentinel under which soldiers patrol the streets of French cities to enforce a state of emergency introduced after a series of terror attacks that have killed more than 230 people since 2015.