President Trump will join French President Emmanuel Macron for a Bastille Day military parade Friday — an invitation that appears to have pleased a U.S. leader who, despite having never served himself, is enthralled by all things military.
For Macron, the parade is a chance to show off France’s considerable military hardware to an important partner, while also commemorating the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I. Yet as the parade was due to start, there were signs of tension between the French president and his own military leaders.
The problem? Macron campaigned on a platform of increasing defense spending. And this week, his government announced that it would be making significant cuts to France’s defense budget this year.
News of the slashed budget came as Macron’s government revealed plans to lower taxes this year. In an interview with Les Echos newspaper, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe confirmed that proposed tax cuts would be offset fiscally by limiting government spending. This meant that the defense budget would see cuts of $968 million in 2017, Philippe said.
The decision caused anger among French military leaders, who argued that they were already overstretched by expensive foreign commitments in places like Syria and Mali, as well as counterterrorism operations at home. French Army Chief of Staff Jean-Pierre Bosser threatened to resign over the budget cuts, according to reports in the French media Thursday.
Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow on European and transatlantic politics at the Hudson Institute, said Marcon’s defense budget sent a “confusing signal after campaigning on increasing defense spending and at the very moment when France is fighting on all these different fronts.” Macron’s very first trip abroad as head of state was to Mali, Haddad noted, the country at a center of a complicated West African military operation which now involves 3,500 French soldiers.
The debate over spending is a major test for Macron, the youngest French president since Napoleon Bonaparte. Just last year, he formed his own political movement that promised to bring a fresh, entrepreneurial approach to government. His proposed tax cuts are a clear break from the policies of his predecessor, François Hollande, who imposed a 75 percent income tax on high earners. Macron — a former banker — hopes these cuts can make the French economy attractive to investors.
However, Macron’s government appears to be struggling to balance the books in a country which has long spent more than it takes in. The new French government has also promised to push down the country’s budget deficit, which just last month its national audit office said would be over the European Union limit of 3 percent for the 10th consecutive year in 2017.
Even within the government, there appears to be disagreement. Philippe had initially announced that tax cuts would be postponed until 2019, but he was later overruled by Marcon. Florence Parly, Macron’s minister of the armed forces, is also in a weak position to negotiate, having only recently stepped into the position after her predecessor was accused of corruption.
Macron’s assurances during the campaign that he would increase spending to reach 2 percent of France’s gross domestic product also make things tricky. That 2 percent target — a benchmark agreed upon by NATO defense ministers in 2006, but not reached by a many of the alliance’s members — has been a frequent point of reference for Trump, who often suggested on the campaign trail that America’s well-funded military partners were not pulling their weight.
According to figures released by NATO this year, France spends 1.79 percent of its GDP on defense. Macron has said that the government is still committed to reaching the 2 percent benchmark by 2025 and that defense spending will rise next year. But analysts say that these cuts will make it difficult reach the 3 percent target in the longer term.
“By making these cuts in the short term, Macron is not yet backtracking on his campaign pledge to increase spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2025,” Fenella McGerty, an analyst for Jane’s Defense Budgets, wrote in an email. “However, this reduction in 2017 will make the path toward this goal all the more steep and potentially unfeasible.”
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