Europe

Macron Caves to the Military

Economic logic has prevailed, for now.

It ain't cheap.

Photographer: Vincent Isore/IP3

French President Emmanuel Macron had steamrolled every adversary in his path -- until he tried to take on the military.

Macron has embarked on a spell of budgetary austerity, a move that will hurt growth but is being pursued out of a misplaced desire to meet the European Union's arbitrary 3 percent deficit target. As part of that effort, the previous government had announced cuts to the defense budget of $968 million for this year, which Macron pledged to uphold.

General Pierre de Villiers, the highly respected chief of the general staff, fought the plans. French media reported that in a closed-door hearing with the defense committee of the French National Assembly, de Villiers said, of the president and the planned budget cuts, "I'm not going to let him f--- me."

It's worth noting how extraordinary this is in France, where the military adheres to a tradition of total public subservience to civilian authorities, so much so that it's often referred to as "la grande muette," or the great mute. There were other reports that de Villiers threatened to resign if the cuts went ahead.

Last week, Macron finally caved. After welcoming Donald Trump to Paris for the traditional July 14 military parade, he promised a significant increase to the defense budget for next year. In a speech announcing the boost, Macron lobbed passive-aggressive attacks at de Villiers. It was "unworthy" to "start some debates in public," the president said in front of military officers. "I am your leader," he added, "I need no pressure, no comment."

Implausibly, Macron also said that the boost was "in no way" due to "certain comments that were made." He obfuscated on the question of whether this year's cuts were to go ahead, but the speech clearly represented a substantial climb-down for the new president -- and a concession to economic and military reality.

Virtually all observers of military matters agree that this is the worst possible time for budget cuts. The French military is active in many theaters in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism, especially in Africa and the Middle East, and involved in Operation Sentinelle, whereby armed troops go on domestic anti-terrorism patrols. Yet its budget hasn't kept pace with increases in the funding of welfare programs. Worse, the proposed cuts, which would've postponed the purchase of much-needed equipment, looked penny wise and pound foolish: Repairing old equipment is more expensive over the long run than replacing it with more modern kit. The French military is also woefully short on helicopters and drones, which are vital in policing an area like the Sahel, which is the size of India.

The move was particularly odd for a president who has struck a hawkish tone since taking power. Macron has clearly relished the trappings of his role as commander in chief, and plainly thinks that France's contribution to the fight against terrorism is in the interests of the country and of the West.

It's also odd because there's no economic rationale for deficit reduction at the moment. Macron was privileging arbitrary budget rules from Brussels over economic logic. So his concession to the military, however grudging, was a welcome one.

If any part of the French government needs to be cut, it's the bloated civil service, and a welfare sector that has grown and grown at the expense of basic government services, such as law and order. But that would be a tall order for a man who came up through the very bureaucracy that needs trimming, and who consistently defends the interests of its ruling class. Macron should fully fund the military, promote growth rather than austerity, and reduce the power of the énarques.

This would be consistent with his mandate for pro-growth change and for a renewal of France's rusty system of governance. Unfortunately, he seems to want to go in the opposite direction.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at peg@peg.im

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE
    Comments