Shooting from the Hip, France’s Boy President May Have Shot France in the Foot

Shooting from the Hip, France’s Boy President May Have Shot Himself in the Foot

PARIS --- In less than a week, France’s boy president has managed to lose whatever credibility he enjoyed from his military establishment, which he first attracted, like the rest of the country, with 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, 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.

While his two immediate predecessors – François Holland et Nicolas Sarkozy – were the first postwar 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 July 11 hearing that “I will not let myself be screwed” – and this was even before it was 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 anymore,” 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 patrols throughout France.

Florence Parly, the newly-installed armed forces minister, did little else that making some comforting noises, 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.

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 has accepted the week before to stay on for a further year at Macron’s request, instead of retiring.

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 barbed insult from the Treasury. The news that Villiers has threatened to resign grabbed the country’s attention, as French soldiers tend to put up and shut up.

Macron’s tantrum

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 or any comments,” he concluded.

Which is obviously untrue, as Macron cut defense spending instead of boosting it as he promised.

Although he did not name Villiers, Macron’s meaning was unmistakable, and was see 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, but over the week-end it developed that Macron had called him to a meeting on July 20.

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 lost whatever credibility he had 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, 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 made public, 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, the

More critically, 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.

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, and because German public opinion has always frowned upon anything military.

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 mora than a one-third share of the Eurofighter program.

Dangerous precedents

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.

So, in a few short days, France’s boy president has managed to alienate his armed forces and his defense industry, 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.


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Shooting from the Hip, France’s Boy President May Have Shot France in the Foot Shooting from the Hip, France’s Boy President May Have Shot France in the Foot Reviewed by Defense Alert on 04:41:00 Rating: 5

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