France's armed forces chief resigns after clash with Macron over budget cuts

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s armed forces chief resigned on Wednesday in a dispute with Emmanuel Macron over defense budget cuts, an early test of the newly elected president’s mettle and the tough presidential style he is cultivating.

In a statement, 60 year-old Pierre de Villiers said he had tried to keep the armed forces fit for an ever more difficult task within the financial constraints imposed on it, but was no longer able to sustain that.

“In the current circumstances I see myself as no longer able to guarantee the robust defense force I believe is necessary to guarantee the protection of France and the French people, today and tomorrow, and to sustain the aims of our country,” he said.

The 39-year-old Macron moved quickly to replace de Villiers, appointing General Francois Lecointre, 55, to fill the role.

As well as being an early test for Macron, the departure of France’s most senior soldier highlights the stresses of a major military power as it battles Islamist insurgencies in Africa, partners allies in Middle East conflicts, and patrols its own streets after a series of home-grown jihadist attacks.

De Villiers’ resignation followed a fierce row last week between the two men just as France prepared for the military pomp of a July 14 Bastille Day parade where Macron’s U.S. counterpart Donald Trump was the guest of honor.

At a closed-door hearing of parliamentarians, de Villiers had used strong language to protest a 850 million euro ($980 million) defense budget cut - part of Macron’s efforts to rein in state spending and get the public deficit under the EU target of 3 percent of national output.

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According to sources at the hearing, he also gave a stark warning about their impact; “There is no fat in our army. We are attacking the muscle here - and this as the security situation worsens,” he told the lawmakers.

Macron quickly fired back with a rebuke, saying: “I have made commitments. I am your boss.”

A presidential source reaffirmed Macron’s position on Wednesday. “We cannot have public disagreement. That’s how our institutions have to work,” the source said.

“These savings will in no way jeopardize France’s operational capacity. France’s security is assured.”

And the government’s spokesman later sought to play down the scale of the 850 million euro defense budget cut, saying the budget would rise once again next year by 1.5 billion euros to 34.2 billion.

He reaffirmed Macron’s commitment to set it at 2 percent of GDP by 2025 up from around 1.6 percent currently.

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The stand-off fits with a tough style cultivated by the youthful new head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces whose powers under the French constitution go further than those of any other western democratic leader.

He sees himself as riding above the day-to-day fray while, at the same time, tightly controlling ministers’ public utterances and insisting on total loyalty from them and other government officials.

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By cutting de Villiers down to size, Macron swung a punch too at a wing of the ultra-conservative Catholic aristocracy - a grouping that backed Francois Fillon, one of his main rivals for the presidency.

De Villiers, whose brother Philippe heads an ultraconservative political group called Movement for France (MPF), became Fillon’s military adviser in 2008 while the conservative politician was prime minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, and became head of the army two years later.

Lecointre, de Villiers’ replacement, is a veteran of the marine infantry. He served in Rwanda in 1994 and as part of the United Nations force in Bosnia in 1995. In 2013, he commanded a European military training mission in Mali.

Some see a high-handed, imperious style emerging in Macron’s manner.

“It’s clear today that the executive cannot bear a situation where its top public servants have a view of things that is different from the political view put together by the Elysee,” General Vincent Desportes, former head of France’s top main military school, told Reuters.

“It’s not Erdoganism, but it’s not far off,” he added in a reference to the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who faces accusations from opposition leaders of being a dictator in the aftermath of last year’s failed military coup.

Additional reporting by Brian Love, John Irish and Sudip Kar-Gupta; Writing by Andrew Callus; Editing by Richard Balmforth