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Macron slaps down defense chief, pledges higher spending

(Editors note: language in paragraphs 2, 7 may offend some readers)

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a news conference following a Franco-German joint cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, July 13, 2017. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron slapped down military chiefs on Thursday after his top general criticized spending cuts to this year’s budget, while pledging to increase military expenditure next year.

In his first defense policy speech, Macron said he would not tolerate public dissent from the military after General Pierre de Villiers reportedly told a parliament committee he would not let the government “fuck with” him on spending cuts.

“For me it’s undignified to wash dirty linen in public,” Macron said in the traditional annual address to the army that he squeezed into his busy schedule during a two-day visit to Paris by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“I have made commitments, I am your boss,” Macron added to an audience of dozens of top army officers and their families.

Macron’s government trimmed the 2017 defense budget in an effort to ensure France meets its commitment to bring its budget deficit below the European Union cap of 3 percent of national income in 2017.

De Villiers, whose mandate as the military chief of staff was extended by a year on Wednesday by the new defense minister, criticized at a parliamentary committee hearing on the same day the 850-million-euro ($969 million) cut in this year’s budget.

“I wont let myself be fucked like that,” he said in the closed-door hearing, according to two parliamentary sources, confirming information by Challenges magazine.

“I may be stupid, but I know when I’m being had,” he added, according to the sources, who declined to be named.

In his speech, Macron made clear he would not let this kind of criticism happen again.

“What I like is the sense of duty, the sense of discretion that has taken our army to where it is today. And what I sometimes find hard to tolerate in certain sectors, I tolerate it even less when it comes to our military,” he said.

Macron nonetheless appeared to have heeded calls for higher military spending by his defense officials and opposition leaders, saying that 2018 would mark the start of a new phase of increased expenditure.

France’s defense spending will reach 34.2 billion euros in 2018, including 650 million for external operations, up from 32.7 billion euros in 2017, Macron said.

“It’s a considerable effort, considering the current context of budgetary constraints,” added Macron, who will preside over the traditional Bastille Day military parade on Friday alongside Trump as his guest of honor,

The 39-year old leader has pledged to bring France’s defense budget to the equivalent of two percent of economic output by 2025 from 1.7 percent today.

His government is at the same time struggling to bring the budget deficit below the EU’s 3 percent limit this year, which would be the first time in a decade, after the public auditor said the deficit was on course to touch 3.2 percent of GDP.

($1 = 0.8773 euros)

Reporting by Michel Rose; additional reporting by Emile Picy and Sophie Louet; editing by Mark Heinrich