France’s top military chief quits after public bust up with Macron

The chief of France's armed forces resigned on Wednesday just days after he was publicly hauled back into line by French president Emmanuel Macron after a public row over cuts to the military's budget.

France's top military chief quits after public bust up with Macron
Photo: AFP

General Pierre De Villiers, 61, presented his resignation to Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday morning.

In a statement De Villiers, who took over in February 2014, said he no longer felt able to command the sort of army “that I think is necessary to guarantee the protection of France and the French people”.

He and Macron were due to meet on Friday in a bid to smooth over what had become a very public row over government cuts to the armed forces.

De Villiers, whose role as head of France's armed forces was prolonged by Macron back in June, had initially publicly complained about the government's plan to cut the military's budget by €850 million, predominantly by saving money on equipment.

The irate De Villiers, known for talking frankly, told a parliamentary committee: “I won't let you screw me like that” (Je ne me laisserai pas baiser comme ça).


That prompted an angry Macron to make a speech at the Ministry of Defence last week in which he bluntly reminded those present that: “I am your boss”.

“It is not dignified to hold certain debates in the public arena,” Macron told those present with de Villiers clearly in mind.

Telling them he will stick to his commitments to make cuts he said: “I don't need pressure or commentary”.

In a later newspaper interview he said: ““If the [Armed Forces] chief of staff has an issue with the President of the Republique, it is the chief of staff who will change his position.”


The president was criticized by some for his public dressing down of De Villiers in front of his “subordinates”.

The army chief was clearly not impressed either and by deciding to step down handed Macron his first major crisis as president.

Experts warned that Macron's decision to publicly scold a general in front of his own men was always like to provoke a response.

“Armies basically obey. So in substance the president was within his rights to restate his authority,” a former chief of the French armed forces Henri Bentégeat told Le Monde newspaper.

“But the way he did it will leave marks. You cannot publicly question a military leader like that in front of his subordinates,” said Bentégeat, who said that the head of the armed forces was “just doing his duty” by defending the budget for the military.

“When Macron attends the first ceremony for a soldier killed because of a lack of equipment, all the criticism will be directed at him,” said Bentégeant.

Reports suggested Macron, France's youngest ever president, had shocked many of his own MPs and ministers in his decision to rebuke De Villiers.

On Wednesday the country's Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who earned the army's respect as minister of defence under Macron's predecessor François Hollande, paid tribute to De Villiers.

“He is a great soldier, one of great integrity and intelligence,” said Le Drian.

But De Villiers had history when it came to rows over cuts to the budget.

Not long after taking the job in 2014, he threatened to walk out along with three other top generals over planned budget cuts. Thanks to Le Drian, the cuts were never made.

De Villiers said Wednesday that throughout his career, he had believed it was his duty to tell politicians “of my reservations”.

Macron is now tasked with finding a replacement, one that accepts hefty cuts to the military's budget and who like De Villiers, commands the respect of the military.


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French army officers convicted after recruit died during initial ritual

A French court on Thursday gave suspended jail terms to three soldiers convicted over the death by drowning of a trainee officer during an initiation ritual at the country's most prestigious military academy.

French army officers convicted after recruit died during initial ritual
The three officers in the dock. Photo: AFP

Jallal Hami, 24, drowned overnight on October 29th, 2012, while crossing a swamp as part of an exercise meant to teach the Saint-Cyr officer school's traditions to new recruits.

A total of seven soldiers, including a general, were tried for manslaughter.

A court in Rennes, a city in France's western Brittany region near the Saint-Cyr academy, sentenced an army captain, a commanding officer and a soldier who has since left the military to suspended terms of between six and eight months.

Four other defendants, including the general who was in charge of training at Saint-Cyr at the time, were cleared of the charges.

Hami's brother Rachid, who had accused the second-year students behind the hazing ritual of running amok, reacted angrily to the verdict.

“You have betrayed my brother once again,” he said.

The victim's brother Rachid Hami, speaking outside the court. Photo: AFP

On the night of Hami's death, new recruits were told to swim across a swamp for 43 metres, weighed down by their helmets in 9C water.

The exercise was meant to simulate a beach landing.

To the strains of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries – famously used in the war movie Apocalypse Now – the recruits jumped into the cold water. Several quickly struggled and went under, gasping for air and clutching at others.

Organisers threw them lifebelts to help them out but it was too late for Jallal Hami, who was reported missing.

Firefighters, alerted an hour later, found his body at 2:35 am near the bank of the swamp.

During the trial the state prosecutor blasted the “madness” of an initiation ritual fuelled by “uncontrolled testosterone” and asked the court to give six of the defendants suspended terms of up to two years.

The prosecutor had however called for General Francis Chanson's acquittal.

Chanson's lawyer William Pineau had said that while the events were “tragic”, his client could not be held criminally responsible “because he did not know what really went on on the ground”.

Jallal Hami came to France in 1992 with his mother and brothers to escape Algeria's civil war.

Hami had for years dreamed of being admitted to Saint-Cyr, which was founded in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte.

His qualifications – Hami had earned a diploma from elite university Sciences Po, studied Mandarin and excelled at sports – allowed him to enter the officer school directly as a third-year trainee.