France's Army Chief Steps Down After Defense-Spending Fight With Macron

By William Horobin Features Dow Jones Newswires

France's army chief resigned Wednesday in a spat with President Emmanual Macron over defense spending, the first major test of the new leader's authority as he moves to take swift control over economic reforms.

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Pierre de Villiers' resignation is the culmination of rising tensions between the two men after the government said it would cut military spending by EUR850 million this year to plug holes in France's public finances.

"In the current circumstances, I consider I am no longer able to ensure the durability of the model of the army that I believe in to guarantee the protection of France and French people, today and in the future," Gen. de Villiers said in a statement announcing his resignation.

Mr. Macron quickly announced that Gen. François Lecointre, who heads Prime Minister Edouard Philippe's defense cabinet, will replace Gen. de Villiers.

The unusually public bickering between a French president and the army highlights early criticism of Mr. Macron. Since coming to power in May, the 39-year old has ruffled some feathers, adopting a regal approach to France's highest office with shows of real and symbolic power.

Earlier this month he summoned lawmakers and senators to Versailles for joint session of parliament and he will use special constitutional powers this summer to make changes to labor laws by decree.

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The army chief criticized government budget plans last week. In a speech to senior military leaders gathered on the eve of the Bastille Day parade as President Donald Trump visited the country, Mr. Macron said a public debate on military finances wasn't dignified and he needed "no pressure or comment" to make good on his promises to the French people.

"I am your boss," Mr. Macron told military leaders.

Mr. de Villiers had criticized the cuts in a closed-door hearing at the National Assembly, but the comments leaked in the French press.

"I considered it was my duty to share my reservations, on several occasions, behind closed doors, in complete transparency and truth," Mr. de Villiers said in the statement announcing his resignation. Mr. Macron accepted the resignation, he said.

The clash on military spending comes as the French president attempts to reconcile competing election promises. Mr. Macron said in his election manifesto he would raise military spending to 2% of economic output by the end of his presidency, but that he would also cut overall spending by EUR60 billion to bring down the deficit and respect European budget rules.

Mr. Macron's budget plans ran into immediate hurdles when a report by state auditor Cour des Comptes revealed a larger-than-expected budget gap. The cuts to military spending are part of a EUR4.5 billion plan his government hastily put together in an attempt to get back on track with deficit reduction this year.

Mr. Macron has also promised tax cuts for businesses and households to spur France's sluggish economic recovery. His government said last week it needs to find EUR20 billion of savings next year alone to meet its objectives.

Write to William Horobin at William.Horobin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 19, 2017 08:21 ET (12:21 GMT)