Why Macron Dared to Confront France's Top General

The president wants to slash defense spending. The military doesn't. Too bad - voters aren't hawkish and the country needs budget cuts.

Showing who's boss.

Photographer: Etienne Laurent/AFP/Getty Images

As U.S. President Donald Trump pushes Europeans to increase defense spending, French President Emmanuel Macron is intent on cutting it -- over the vocal objections of his military establishment. And Macron's effort makes sense, economically and politically. 

Few political leaders have dared slap down their countries' top generals as sharply as Macron has done.

Macron's Reforms Tested by Military Resignation

Earlier this month, General Pierre de Villiers, the general staff chief of the French army, protested to a parliamentary commission that the 850-million-euro ($978 million) reduction in military equipment spending proposed by Macron's government for this year would be untenable. His language was strong: "I won't be had like this," de Villiers reportedly said.

Macron's response was equally forceful. "I am your boss," he said in a speech to military officers. "I know how to stick to the obligations I have taken on to citizens and the armed forces. In that respect, I need zero pressure and zero commentary."

The harshness of Macron's words continued to sting despite a peace offering of a 1.5-billion-euro spending increase in 2018 that he dangled before the military. So de Villiers resigned on Wednesday, saying he could no longer vouch for "the sustainability of the military model that I believe is necessary to guarantee the protection of France and the French today and tomorrow and support our country's ambitions."

Macron expected this; he'd even said publicly that if a chief of staff got into a confrontation with the president, it was up to the staff chief to resign. And although a poll published by the French military earlier this year showed that 80 percent of the French public supported maintaining or increasing the current level of military spending -- 1.79 percent of economic output, higher than average for European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- Macron understands that harmful fallout is unlikely.

Europeans are generally far more pacifist than Americans. In a 2014 paper that studied public attitudes toward military spending over the preceding decade, Richard Eichenberg of Tufts University and Richard Stoll of Rice University wrote that such support depended more on personal beliefs and experiences than on the public perception of current threats. Only 35 percent of Western Europeans, compared with 78 percent of Americans, said in surveys taken by Eichenberg and Stoll that they consider war to be sometimes necessary. The more a person supports a leading global role for Europe, the less he or she is likely to back increased military spending, the researchers found.

Macron's appeal is based on a strongly pro-European leadership message; it's about different ambitions than the ones de Villiers mentioned in his resignation statement. Macron's mandate includes fixing the stagnant French economy. There is a wealth of academic literature on how military spending affects economic growth and unemployment. The results are often contradictory. But recent papers using modern methods have shown that there is no meaningful relationship between defense spending and growth, or between defense spending and unemployment.

A recent study of the relationship in Italy showed that military spending can positively affect economic sentiment, inasmuch as a country's participation in peacekeeping missions increases the public sense of security. That's likely to hold for neighboring France, too -- but then Macron's government is not cutting the funding for France's active operations in North Africa, for example, but rather the harder-to-explain military-equipment allocations.

Macron wants to comply with the European Union's requirement that a country's budget deficit not exceed 3 percent of economic output, a figure France exceeded last year and is in danger of exceeding again. That's important for French relations with budget-conscious Germany.

And it's a big part of what makes military cuts so tempting. Germany gets by with defense spending of 1.22 percent of economic output, and Italy's fine with 1.13 percent. Compared with them, the French military budget has some fat. 

A cut in French arms spending would widen the gap between its outlays and its formal commitment to NATO to spend 2 percent of output on the military. Macron's government has just reaffirmed its intention to reach that 2-percent mark, but not until 2025. That gives him room to make cuts now without publicly flouting the NATO obligation.

European electorates are not belligerent or insecure enough to demand more money for defense. That's why Macron was so irritated with de Villiers, and so willing to let the respected general go.

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:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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