French leader Emmanuel Macron faced the biggest crisis of his young presidency on Wednesday following the resignation of the military chief after a heated dispute on defense budget cuts.
The row between Macron and General Pierre De Villiers blew up last week when the chief of the defense staff told a parliamentary committee he would not allow the armed forces to be “screwed” by the government’s plans to slash 850 million euros ($980 million) from the budget.
Macron, 39, replied later that “I am the boss” and criticized the 60-year-old general for dragging the budget row into the “public sphere”.
In a newspaper interview at the weekend, Macron added that if there was a difference of opinion, “it is the chief of the defense staff who will change his position”.
De Villiers said in his resignation statement he felt he had no choice but to stand down because “I no longer feel able to ensure the sustainability of the model of the armed forces that I think is necessary to guarantee the protection of France and the French people”.
The general, who is widely liked by the rank and file, said that throughout his career, he had believed it was his duty to tell politicians “of my reservations”.
French government spokesman Christophe Castaner told reporters that Macron has nominated Gen. Francois Lecointre, a career military officer, as the new chief of staff.
Lecointre served in Sarajevo during the Yugoslavia wars in the 1990s and recently led the EU military training mission in Mali to help fight Islamic extremists.
The row between Macron and De Villiers has provoked a debate about whether the president had humiliated his military chief or whether he had no choice but to exert his authority just two months into his presidency.
A former head of the French air force, General Vincent Lanata, told L’Express news weekly on Friday he was “very shocked” by Macron’s “rant” at De Villiers.
The deep cuts to the defense budget have angered the military because Macron has shown his support for the army, navy and air force since he came to power in May.
The cuts are part of 4.5 billion euros to public spending that Macron’s centrist government has pledged.