Emmanuel Macron is locked in a public battle with France’s senior general over military spending cuts as he faces his toughest opposition yet to proposed austerity measures.
The dispute threatens to become a political crisis as speculation mounts that General Pierre de Villiers, the highly regarded chief of staff, might step down in protest this week ahead of a formal meeting with the French president on Friday.
The spat, over a proposed €850m worth of military cuts, highlights the scale of the challenge facing Mr Macron as he targets €60bn worth of savings over five years while keeping an election pledge to cut taxes.
The disagreement started when Mr Macron’s government last week said it wanted to cut the 2017 defence budget in an effort to bring the country’s deficit below the EU’s limit of 3 per cent of gross domestic product.
This followed a warning from the state auditor last month that there was a €9bn hole in country’s finances and that the government needed to find €4bn worth of new savings this year to meet the EU target.
The proposed cuts reportedly prompted Gen de Villiers to tell a parliament committee: “I may be stupid, but I know when I’m being had.”
The general followed this up with a Facebook post last Friday which did not mention Mr Macron directly but which was seen as another challenge: “No one deserves to be blindly followed,” he wrote.
His intervention is particularly striking in France because — unlike other parts of the French state — the military has a long history of refraining from comment on political decisions. The army is often referred to as “la grande muette” — “the great and silent” in French political life.
Gen de Villiers’ remarks earned a public rebuke from Mr Macron. “For me it is undignified to wash dirty linen in public,” he said on Friday in an address to the army. “I am your leader,” he added. “I need no pressure, no comment.”
But Mr Macron has been forced on the defensive, with criticism coming from all sides, including his own party. Jean-Jacques Bridey, chairman of the parliamentary committee on defence and a Macron ally, last week said he regretted the proposed cuts “while our men risk their lives every day”.
Florian Philippot, vice-president of France’s far-right National Front, said the cuts were as “irresponsible as they were incomprehensible”. Alexis Corbière, a leftwing member of the National Assembly, said the consequences of austerity on the French army were “intolerable”.
In what he said was an unrelated measure, Mr Macron on Friday announced a €1.5bn rise in military spending in 2018 to €34.2bn. The move came amid reports that Gen de Villiers was threatening to quit.
Mr Macron told a Sunday newspaper at the weekend that Gen de Villiers needed to respect the chain of command and keep his opinions to himself. But he also urged the general to remain in his job.
On Monday, Christophe Castaner, a government spokesman, told FranceInfo radio that Mr Macron and Gen de Villiers would “take the decision together” about the general’s future.
Analysts said the affair demonstrated the challenge facing Mr Macron in his efforts to cut public spending over the coming five years while also reforming labour laws and cutting taxes.
“The case of defence spending illustrates the wider challenge facing the government in reducing spending,” said Bruno Cavalier, chief economist at Oddo Securities. “All of the government departments are going to say their operations are essential.”
Mr Cavalier added that while the 2017 budget was on track to meet the 3 per cent deficit target, the real question was the 2018 budget, where the government was targeting 2.7 per cent but would be “very happy” with 2.99 per cent.
The government also last week flip-flopped over whether to introduce planned tax breaks for the wealthy in 2019 or 2018, eventually deciding on 2018 despite budget constraints.