Macron’s Shaky Embrace of de Gaulle

President Emmanuel Macron, left, with General Pierre de Villiers at a Bastille Day parade earlier this month. Credit Stephane Mahe/Reuters
President Emmanuel Macron, left, with General Pierre de Villiers at a Bastille Day parade earlier this month. Credit Stephane Mahe/Reuters

After a weeklong battle of wills with President Emmanuel Macron, France’s military chief, Pierre de Villiers, resigned on Wednesday. The president, in forcing the hand of General de Villiers, took a page from the playbook of Charles de Gaulle, the strong-willed former general who founded the country’s Fifth Republic in 1958. But as Mr. Macron soon discovered, the Gaullist rules of politics no longer apply.

As the first president of the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle wished to impose on the nation — and on its military — an executive authority so powerful that France would regain not just stability, but also its former glory in world affairs. Military spending was key to this ambition.

De Gaulle did not hold back. By 1960, France was spending 5.4 percent of its gross domestic product on the armed forces. In the decade that followed, the foundation was laid for the country’s nuclear submarine fleet and aircraft carriers, allowing France to project power far and wide.

De Gaulle’s vision could not have been realized without a flourishing economy. During the decade he was in power, France’s annual G.D.P. growth was a 5.7 percent, outpacing that of every other European nation except West Germany.

Mr. Macron, a political neophyte who rose to the nation’s top office in May, has taken control of a much different country, one dismissed in many quarters as “the sick man of Europe.” And not only has France’s economy long been stagnant, but its sense of identity has also been shaken.

Mr. Macron’s neoliberalism is offered as part of the antidote to the economic woes: He seems determined to loosen workplace rules and lighten corporate tax burdens. He is also promising to make substantial state investments in infrastructure and innovative industries in order to lift the economy and lower unemployment.

But when it comes to France’s national malaise, Mr. Macron appears to believe a certain idea — or, rather, caricature — of Gaullism is the cure. He sees his role as “Jupiterian” — supreme and singular. Like de Gaulle, he appears to disdain not just the give and take of politics but also the advice and warnings of his own appointees.

Enter General de Villiers. Reappointed to his post last month by the president, the general has been vocal about the depleted state of the armed forces. “I have a fine army,” he said, “but it is doing 130 percent of what it was meant to do.”

For the past two years, France has had some 20,000 men and women active in operational theaters — a strain on any army — the majority committed to regions in Africa and the Middle East once under French control. Moreover, several thousand soldiers have been called up to reinforce the police since the wave of terrorist attacks began in 2015.

Crucially, it is not just a matter of material, but also morale. How to attract and retain recruits if the services are battered by years of budget cuts?

General de Villiers told the French media that Mr. Macron had promised he would fulfill his campaign pledge to increase military spending to 2 percent of G.D.P. from around 1.78 percent. And Mr. Macron has seemed sympathetic, making several visits with military personnel during his first days in office.

But while the symbolism has been spectacular, the substance has been less so. Days before the Bastille Day celebrations, the government, surprised by an unexpected shortfall in state revenue, announced an 850 million euro (about $980 million) cut to the 32 billion euros earmarked for this year’s defense budget. In response, General de Villiers reportedly vowed in a closed-door parliamentary session on July 12, using a more colorful phrase, that he will not be messed around with.

Mr. Macron was not amused. Following General de Villiers comments to the parliamentary committee, he reminded an audience of top military brass (including General de Villiers) who their boss was — “Je suis votre chef” — and warned them against engaging in public pressure or commentary. He insisted he would keep his word and begin the military buildup in 2018. Moreover, if the military command does not agree with the president, he said to the French media, it is the former that must change or be changed.

On Wednesday, General de Villiers took Mr. Macron’s words to heart, declaring in his resignation letter that he no longer believed he could guarantee the French Army’s ability to both protect France and support the nation’s global ambitions. On Thursday, as unease deepened in the ranks of military leaders, Mr. Macron made an unscheduled visit to a military base to announce that, come 2018, the defense budget will be increased by nearly 1.8 billion euros.

Mr. Macron’s rhetoric and theatrics reveal that he is committed to the Gaullist projection of hard power, but his experience in finance and government show that he is wedded to budgetary restraint.

In his speech at the military base, he told the soldiers that he knows “what France owes” them. But he has also told the French what his government owes them: a 50 billion euro investment in training programs and infrastructure, all the while offering tax relief and keeping the national deficit at the European Union-imposed 3 percent of G.D.P.

The coming months will reveal how Mr. Macron will balance these priorities. As another of his political heroes, Pierre Mendès-France, observed, “To govern means to choose.”

Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston and is at work on a book on Catherine the Great and the French Enlightenment.

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