“I see myself as no longer able to guarantee the robust defence force that I believe is necessary to guarantee the protection of France and the French people…and to sustain the aims of our country”.
Letter of Resignation, General Pierre de Villiers, Chief of the French General Staff, 18 July, 2017
Alphen, Netherlands. 21 July. He might have been British! The resignation letter from General de Villiers to President Macron captured succinctly the dilemma faced by almost all of Europe’s serious defence powers – all six of them! Or, to put it another way, it seems these days that Europeans can either have sound defence or sound money, but not both. What happened, and what are the implications?
France, like Britain, is a defence paradox. The French armed forces are not just central to the defence of France, and the exercise of the very considerable influence Paris enjoys, they are part of the very soul and identity of France. President Macron, who has triggered what is a crisis in French military leadership unheard of since the days of President de Gaulle and the Algerian crisis back in the early 1960s, reflects this paradox. With a defence budget of some $35 billion France is a leading world military power. President Macron says he wants to increase that budget from the current 1.77% GDP to 2% GDP by 2025 to meet the NATO Defence Investment Pledge. And yet General de Villiers has resigned over a planned $900 million cut to the defence budget.
At the level of strategic power and influence in what is a rapidly changing world France’s excellent armed forces faces exactly the same problem Britain faces – an enforced retreat from excellence because defence investment is arbitrary rather than strategic. France has a force with a little bit of everything, not much of anything, doing far too much of all things, pretty much everywhere, and pretty much all of the time.
The cause of France’s growing defence crisis is need of Paris to reduce its crippling annual deficit and burgeoning national debt. This is partly due to the formal commitment made by France to cut public expenditure by some $50bn to get the deficit within 3% GDP demanded by the EU. And yet, France’s military commitments continue to grow. These range from a long-term engagement to stabilise the Sahel, but also extend across what is a broad military-strategic effort from counter-terrorism to counter-Russia, including the maintenance of an expensive independent nuclear deterrent. Taken together, and the missions imposed on the French force by the livre blanc de la defense, and the military tasks it implies, are leading inexorable to a breakdown between what the force can afford to do, and what the force must critically be capable of doing. This tension is made daily more onerous by the parallel need to understand and then invest in future war if deterrence is to remain credible.
There is also a political dimension to what is, in effect, a sacking by President Macron of his military chief. “Jupiter” as Macron is now called in France, after the Roman king of the gods and god of thunder and lightning, is about to attempt to face down the six big ‘syndicats’ (trades unions) in an effort to reform France’s labour market. Being seen to be tough with the military is one way to indicate to the political Left that this non-aligned president is not only is tough, he is prepared to be just as tough with the political Right.
Strategic implications? Here, Macron’s appointment as defence minister might offer a clue. Florence Parly is a class act. A socialist and graduate of the elitist ENA, she is also an ardent pro-European. With France and Germany about to announce a plan to construct a ‘7G’ fighter, and Berlin committed to some form of EU-centric European Defence Union, could it be that Macron is about to abandon France’s much cherished defence sovereignty to embed itself within European defence? European Defence Community redux?
Which takes me back to Suez. In the wake of the disastrous 1956 Anglo-French ‘adventure’ to seize back the Canal Zone from President Nasser’s Egypt London and Paris went their separate ways. After US President Eisenhower rightly out a stop to Britain’s almost post-imperial adventurism Paris and London drew completely different strategic conclusions. France vowed never again to be humiliated by the Americans. Britain vowed never again to be on the wrong side of the Americans. Is a similar strategic divergence again on the cards? After all, with Britain leaving the EU London will naturally lean more towards the Anglosphere, not least because the US-led NATO will be the focus of British defence efforts.
Not so fast. Whilst my prescription has that nice neat strategy feel to it that in Europe is invariably wrong, the simple facts of power and capability suggests something else might happen. Indeed, in spite of Brexit and Macron’s ‘more Europe’ posture Britain and France are actually very close. Events will ensure they remain so because if Macron is no de Gaulle, Theresa May is no Anthony Eden. Moreover, Florence Parly was a board member of THALES, a French defence-industrial giant not only at the heart of European defence, but central to the vitally-important Franco-British strategic partnership.
Therefore, Macron is far more likely to reinforce France’s traditional ‘cob-web’ foreign policy strategy than ‘lose’ France’s distinctiveness in the German-led EU. Paris has traditionally exerted influence by maintaining a series of bilateral strategic relationships with key partners, most notably the US, Germany, and the UK. For Paris, and for all the talk of more EU defence, relative power suggests that EU Brussels will remain just one more strategic bilateral relationship through which Paris exerts influence. However. The French armed forces are a key lever of that influence and will remain so only if they are properly funded and that funding is applied properly. Are you listening, Chancellor Hammond?
As I peer through the thick fog of jaw jaw that so mires clear strategic analysis in Europe one thing is clear; the Franco-British strategic defence partnership is, and will remain, vital to the defence of Europe. This is because, as the General’s resignation letter implies, France, unlike a lot of other Europeans, takes matters strategic very seriously in what is going to be a very dangerous age. It is precisely because of the reason General de Villiers resigned that Britain and France need each other. Indeed, neither power these days is sufficient alone to fulfil even its basic mission of defence in a world in which the one certainly is uncertainty. In other words, France must lead, even as France reforms. Britain?
Plus ca change, plus la meme chose?