PARIS — French Army Gen. François Lecointre has been appointed as the country's armed forces chief, government spokesman Christophe Castaner announced following a weekly Cabinet meeting.
His predecessor, Army Gen. Pierre de Villiers, on Wednesday resigned as chief of the armed forces, marking a public dispute with President Emmanuel Macron over a struggle to meet extended military missions with a strained defense budget.
"In the current circumstances I see myself as no longer able to guarantee the robust defense force I believe is necessary to guarantee the protection of France and the French people, today and tomorrow, and to sustain the aims of our country," de Villiers said in a statement.
De Villiers told Macron of his resignation before the ministerial meeting, and the head of state had accepted that decision.
Macron had previously asked the military head to attend a Friday meeting to resolve their widely discussed differences over a surprise cut in the 2017 defense budget.
The head of state had unexpectedly approved the Economy and Finance Ministry's €850 million (U.S. $981 million) cut to defense spending this year, which had been set at €32.7 billion.
That budget cut is expected to hit arms procurement, ushering in delays in orders for air tankers, helicopters and patrol vessels, daily Le Figaro reported.
A smaller defense budget was part of Macron’s attempt to slash public spending and bring national debt to 3 percent of gross domestic product, a target which Paris has long failed to hit.
De Villiers cursed that slashing of military spending when he spoke last week in a closed session of the defense committee of the lower house of the National Assembly, French media reported.
A discreet silence when issued with orders marks the stamp of the French Army, so de Villiers’ use of blunt terms drew severe political fire from the head of state, who is the commander in chief.
Macron responded at the garden party held on the eve of the July 14 Bastille Day military parade on the Champs Elysées, at which U.S. President Donald Trump was guest of honor.
"It is not dignified to hold certain debates in the public arena," Macron said at the garden party, a high-level event attended by the prime minister, defense minister, service chiefs, industry leaders and officers of allied armed forces.
"I have made commitments, I am your boss," Macron said in his speech, sparking expectations de Villiers would resign in the following days.
Macron, however, said the 2018 defense budget would rise to €34.2 billion, of which €650 million was earmarked for overseas deployments.
That spending on foreign missions compares to a total of €1.3 billion for 2017, of which €450 million has been set aside in the annual budget. Those operations include services in sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq and in the skies over Syria.
Macron had pledged on the presidential campaign trail to hit the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP by 2025, excluding pensions.
That would call for an annual budget of more than €50 billion in 2025, calling for an annual increase of €2 billion.
Macron’s cut of this year’s budget and de Villier’s departure cast doubt on hitting that target.
The outlook for equipment programs looks grim, according to Jean-Paul Palomeros, a former head of NATO transformation command in Norfolk, Virginia, reported daily Le Monde.
"The only solution lies in postponing investment on modernization of equipment, maintenance and the indispensable effort in research and development which shape the future," he said.
Palomeros had been a military adviser to Macron during the presidential campaign, which led to his election to the Elysée in May.
Lecointre, the new top military officer in France, served in Sarajevo during the Yugoslavia wars in the 1990s and recently led the mission in Mali to help fight Islamic extremists.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.