France military chief’s clarion call to boost defence spending

Bertrand Guay, AFP | Chief of the Defence Staff French army General Pierre de Villiers arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris on July 27, 2016

France’s military chief on Wednesday took the unusual step of urging the country's next president to raise defence spending in a rare public appeal.


Chief of Defence General Pierre de Villiers called on France to boost its defence budget to two percent of GDP before the end of the next presidential term, in 2022. It is an effort that can be “neither considered lightly nor delayed”, he warns. “Time is of the essence.”

De Villiers’s call comes four months before the first round of France’s 2017 presidential election and spurred a spate of reactions across the political spectrum.

France has raised defence spending twice in the wake of the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis and currently spends 1.78 percent of its GDP on defence. The budget rose by 600 million euros to reach 32 billion euros in 2016 and will increase by 700 million more for 2017. Alongside fellow European Union member states, France has committed to reaching the two-percent target in 2024, a goal reaffirmed at July’s NATO summit in Warsaw.

But for De Villiers, 2024 won’t cut it.

“One must understand that the slightest discrepancy in coherency between threats, missions and means is akin to the grain of sand that seizes up the system and leads to defeat,” wrote the chief of defence, typically a discreet figure, in the French business daily Les Echos. “That’s the danger we will expose ourselves to if nothing is done. Everyone has understood: We do not win a war without a war effort.”

Although the op-ed was published Wednesday, the newspaper specifies it was written before Monday’s apparent Islamist terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market.

States rearming

Indeed, the general notes that, with radical Islamist terrorism, “We are fighting an enemy very far from classical patterns. We are confronted with an enemy that attacks us more for what we are, than for what we have.”

But De Villiers says one must take care not to be blinded by that “immediate and concrete” threat alone.

“The return of state powers is no longer in doubt. At the gates of Europe, in Asia, in the Near and Middle East, more and more states are implementing strategies that rest on the balance of power, even the fait accompli; all are rearming.”

Political reaction to the general’s comments was, by and large, swift.

“Today, we have the resources necessary with regard to our objectives, but further efforts will need to be made in the coming years,” President François Hollande said Wednesday, noting the defence budget has been raised throughout his term.

De Villiers’s appeal appeared to applaud the current administration’s initiative to stabilise funding, thereby “putting an unprecedented end to the downward trend of the past 35 years”.

Hollande announced earlier this month that he would not be standing for re-election next spring. Manuel Valls, Hollande’s prime minister until recently and now candidate for the Socialist Party‘s 2017 nomination, agreed with the general’s two-percent figure, but not his short timeframe.

“We have a duty to prepare ourselves for a long war,” Valls said. “We need to give ourselves this objective of reaching two percent… passing from 32.7 billion euros today, to a little more than 40 billion by 2025.”

For her part, National Front leader Marine Le Pen, touted to make it to the presidential run-off on current polling data, is keen to give far more than what the general asks. She called on her blog Wednesday for the budget to be raised immediately to the two-percent level – the “minimum acceptable”, in her estimation – and for it to reach three percent by 2022. Le Pen also wrote that acquiring a second aircraft carrier for France will be one of her first orders of business as president, if elected next year.

‘It’s clear, the message is addressed to Fillon’

François Fillon, the conservative nominee for 2017 who leads the presidential race on current polling, has yet to address De Villiers’s plea and left his online platform to do the talking instead. Fillon’s website has him pledging to meet the two percent target “progressively” by 2025.

Right-wing critic Yves Thréard opines that Fillon was De Villiers's real target.

“It’s clear, the message is addressed to Fillon, whose program doesn’t foresee reaching such an objective before 2025. The message is all the more harsh for the right-wing candidate, whom De Villiers doesn’t name, because Villiers was Fillon’s military chief when he was at Matignon [the French prime minister’s residence],” Thréard said in his Europe 1 radio editorial on Thursday.

“The two men know one another well, appreciate one another. But it is well known behind the scenes that De Villiers is worried about Fillon’s defence projections while the terrorist threat is at its peak and France is committed on several fronts abroad.”

In a television interview with FRANCE 24 General Dominique Trinquand said that “as ever, military personnel think in terms of the long run”.

“To renew equipment, one needs ten or 20 years and today the equipment is worn out because it is old and it has been used a lot on operations,” he said.

The former chief of France’s mission to the UN in Central African Republic continued, “Villiers thinks one must say so, loud and clear, before the political battle truly gets underway.”

Judging by the stream of reactions to De Villiers’s plea, one might say it already has.

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