On 14 December, Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf published an interview with French general (ret.) Pierre de Villiers. De Villiers got into a conflict with the President after Macron proposed cuts to the defence budget, early in his term. His aggressive choice of words – “I don’t want to be screwed“- was leaked from the closed meeting with a parliamentary committee and De Villiers decided to resign on 19 July 2017, the first general in 70 years to do so.

De Villiers hasn’t rested on his laurels since. The next 14 months the retired general wrote two books and an essay on leadership. The interview with De Telegraaf deals with leadership in France, the ‘Yellow Vests’ and Macron. The following is a selection of the best quotes.

The leader determines. He gives directions, he gives the orders. But he doesn’t do that by pressuring his subordinates. A leader has to get the best out of his team, his art is making people participate, to make them share ideas and use their imagination. I am a great admirer of Marshal Foch, who states that one of the three principles of warfare is the conservation of energy. This is achieved by delegating, making your subordinates responsible and get them to take initiatives. That builds trust. I have prepared men and women for battle, sometimes even for the supreme sacrifice. In such a relationship, trust is crucial. 

What happens now [in France] is the result of a lack of trust. What the  Yellow Vests  want to say, is that they no longer trust those that govern them. That, by the way, is a problem facing many democracies in the West.

A leader must place the men and women he leads first. (…) The people come first: what are the consequences of my decisions for those that have to face the changes?

To me, it was a paradox: budget cuts amounting to €850 million, while the number of threats and of missions increases. In a company, people are fired, if worst comes to worst, there will be a bankruptcy. In the army, people are killed. But President Macron has finally gotten the message: the defence budget will increase substantially and will finally reach the 2 percent of GDP norm mandated by NATO.”

Sure, an army isn’t a nation (…). Orders are given and they are obeyed. But don’t think there aren’t limits to military discipline. If there is no trust, soldiers will not go to the front. For example, the summer of 2014, Iraq. Near Mosul 250.000 men with good, partly state-of-the-art American equipment faced 30.000 furious fanatics. Hardly equipped, you could see the madness in their eyes. They won the battle.

I don’t believe in a merger of armies. You can’t just put soldiers together and make them serve Europe. The idea of a supranational state cannot be imposed on people, that will only scare them of. A soldier doesn’t die on the battlefield for an economic community, for something abstract. He will die for his country, or a coalition with a common objective, such as in the Levant.”

I led a coalition in Afghanistan in 2017, comprising 15 countries, 2500 men. You can give orders, but every country calls its capital for consultation. That is normal: every country represents a nation, a community of men and women that rests on history, shared values, the motherland. You have to take that into account if you want to create a European army.”

I am a great proponent of coalitions. Just look at the Levant: we have won in Iraq, we’re wrapping things up in Syria, it worked in Afghanistan. As long as things are concrete and goals pragmatic, they will work. Operations, training, logistics: those can be done together.”