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Democrats or technocrats?

French military chief General Pierre de Villiers’s decision to resign on July 19 was an expected move. He had crossed his boundaries by having a spat with France’s newly-elected president, Emmanuel Macron.

De Villiers had suggested that he could not guarantee the protection of France if Macron implemented budget cuts for the army. The row had started when Macron announced that he could cut French spending by Euros 60 billion over the next five years, out of which Euros 850 million could be cut from the military budget this year alone.

Though Macron’s plan faced opposition within his own government and military forces, he stood his ground against de Villiers’ statement. The general had shown his inability to offer the robust defence force that, he believed, was necessary to protect France and its people.

He did not stop there. Instead, he went a step ahead in a parliamentary committee hearing by using strong language to protest the defence budget cuts, saying that the deployment of the French military in Mali and Chad to aid local forces against jihadists has put extra pressure on the army.

The general’s other transgression was his column in Le Figaro in which he wrote that the new budgetary context was not tenable. Macron’s response was befitting and vigorous while addressing top officers and troops. He told the military directly: “I am your chief. I know how to keep my commitments to our fellow citizens and our armed forces. I don’t need any pressure or commentaries”.

France, as a major EU member, must meet the target of a budget deficit within three percent of the GDP and needs to cut spending.

Sixty-year-old General de Villiers has locked horns with Macron just two months after he was elected. And 39-year-old Macron wasted no time in telling the general who the boss was in a speech to dozens of army officers and their families. When the dispute became public, it had to reach a logical conclusion and the general had to tender his resignation, which was immediately accepted.

The president had earlier said that it was “undignified to wash dirty linen in public” and if the general had “an issue with the president of the republic, the chief of staff will be changed”.

Though a resignation is expected in such circumstances in civilised countries, the disagreement itself was the unexpected aspect of the whole affair. It was untypical of French military officials who usually remain silent on matters that revolve around government policy. That tradition has been violated and has resulted in a rebuke by the president.

But the general still believed that it was his duty to tell politicians about his reservations. Of course, the general was much more experienced in military matters and older than the president by over 20 years. But the question here is not of military expertise or seniority. The question is about who makes the ultimate decision: the technocrat or the democrat?

The concept of civilian supremacy has evolved over hundreds of years. It has been a cumulative process in which nations have learnt from each other. From the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC and the beheading of King Charles I of England in 1649 to the Bill of Rights and the French Revolution of 1789, there have been countless iterations of the public will.

While the French general may have been right in his assumptions, the French president represents the will of the people. The electoral process is the mechanism through which the will of the people is bestowed upon the elected representative – be it the French president or the Pakistani prime minister.

Technocrats do have specialised knowledge and skills in key matters ranging from military affairs to science, technology and finance. This specialisation sometimes – or, perhaps, most of the time – leads them to think they are better suited to pass judgement and make decisions.

This thinking has led technocrats – from bankers and generals to scientists – to play havoc with their nations. The Japanese generals, even after the dropping of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima, were adamant to keep fighting. Our own scientists and ‘fathers of the bomb’ never tire of issuing threats of annihilation to the neighbouring countries.

Just imagine a technocrat realising his dream of a total holocaust in South Asia. Remember General MacArthur, who was contemplating an atomic option and President Truman removed the general from his position for trying to enhance his public stature during the Korean War in the early 1950s?

The unnecessary destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh. But the general was so oblivious of its aftermath that he never thought about the millions of casualties in an atomic confrontation. This is not to say that non-technocratic civilians or all elected heads of government are conscientious. Lyndon B Johnson’s carpet-bombing of Vietnam is a case in point and Modi’s massacres in Gujarat are not forgotten.

The point is that a democratic setup with an inbuilt civilian supremacy is still the best option because people do have an option to correct their mistakes in the next elections. Even if they repeatedly make mistakes, the disruption of the process or giving up on civilian supremacy makes things worse.

The French president has asserted himself and even if his judgement is wrong, the public will make amends because they have a right to voice their concerns and change their choices. Giving technocrats the right to undermine the elected government is tantamount to undermining the entire democratic setup that the people have been trying to build for centuries.

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "Democrats or technocrats?," Islamabad. 2017-07-22.
Keywords: French revolution , Government policy , Logical conclusion , French military , Social aspect , Defense force , Opposition parties , France , EU