Mayor of Saint-Jean-de-Luz since 1995, Michèle Alliot-Marie was Minister of Youth and Sports from 1993 to 1995, then she moved on in succession to the Ministry of Defence, Interior, Justice, and Foreign Affairs from 2002 to 2011.
You had quite a long tenure at the Ministry of Defence. How did you happen to assume this role?
I remained in the office of Minister of Defence for five years and two months, from 2002 to 2007. I think only Pierre Messmer had a longer tenure (Editor’s Note: Pierre Messmer was Minister of the Armed Forces from February 1960 to June 1969). I never sought any of these posts, either for this ministry or any of the others. I was fortunate to have been offered these opportunities. When I was first nominated for the Defence position, I was president of the RPR, so it was logical that they thought of me for a « choice » ministry.
Did you expect it?
Jacques Chirac, who was President of the Republic at the time, called me in Saint-Jean-de-Luz (Editor’s note: Michèle Alliot-Marie has been the Mayor of that community since 1995). He told me that he had me in mind for a major ministry, and he talked about Defence as part of Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s government. So then I asked him how the armed services would react to having a woman at the head of the ministry. He answered that I would get along very well…
What experience had you had in the military arena?
As a deputy, I had long held a seat at the Foreign Affairs Commission, and I had also had two years in Defence. So I was very well aware of the strategic side of military affairs. For me the challenge was to quickly get up to speed on issues related to military industry and secondarily to ranks. When you haven’t done military service, you also have to learn to recognize them…At Saint-Jean-de-Luz, I really only saw generals and admirals. I knew how to tell the difference between a lieutenant and a colonel…Below that, I was somewhat out of the loop…
What was your first project?
One of my first duties was to prepare the military planning bill for the years 2003 to 2008. The previous one had already been done by the left majority and by my predecessor, Alain Richard. I recall with a certain amount of pride that this planning bill from 2003-2008 is still the only one that has ever been fully implemented.
That’s kind of paradoxical isn’t it? A bill that isn’t implemented?
A military planning bill is designed to anticipate investments for the six years to come: it’s the Finance Ministry’s guarantee of funding to the Ministry of Defence. It’s very important because armed services programs cover periods of several years. You have to be able to negotiate with manufacturers regarding payment of the materials commissioned. But from the inception of the military planning bill all the way up to 2002, and then again starting in 2008, annual budget bills cut back on funding because of competing priorities. Generally, the result is cancellations or delays in placing orders.
How did you keep that from happening?
Discussions on the annual budgeting bill make up a process that carries on over several months. There’s always a disconnect between what the armed services want and what the finance ministry can do. Negotiation moves higher and higher up in the hierarchy until you get to the final arbitration with the President of the Republic. The Minister’s personality has a big influence on the process. For all those years, I insisted that commitments had to be kept, which earned me some rough and tumble rows with Nicolas Sarkozy, the Finance and Economics Minister at the time. In negotiation, I succeeded in aligning my annual budget with the planning bill.
What do you think about the psychodrama that surrounded the writing and publication of the last White Paper?
The catastrophic scenario that was raised in the media was Bercy’s…It’s the same old story, Bercy decides that the Defence Minister is a variable, subject to modification, and can be the target of easy funding cuts. Probably, the communication surrounding the White Paper was also intended to scare people before its publication so that they could then create a sense of relief afterward…
What’s your analysis of this White Paper?
They talk about stability, but the reality is quite different: the funding levels are maintained in adjustable euros, which means that with inflation, they fall in absolute value. So over six years, that can cause a reduction that adds up to a considerable sum. When I left the Defence Ministry in 1987, we were at 1.87% of GDP. At the end of the next military planning law, we will most likely be down to 1.35%. And that’s only if we obey the law! I would remind you that Germany this year will be at 1.70% of its GDP. For the Defence budget to be used as an adjustment variable creates genuine problems for the armed forces and for industries.