France: the reform that has Macron in crisis

Macron France
Paris (France), 16/03/2023.- French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during the National Roundtable on Diplomacy at the foreign ministry in Paris, France 16 March 2023. France's Foreign Ministry is undertaking a sweeping review of its vast diplomatic corps, an effort driven by President Emmanuel Macron to adapt French diplomacy to 21st century challenges. (Francia) EFE/EPA/Michel Euler/POOL MAXPPP OUT

As Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne addressed the National Assembly podium, opposition lawmakers stood up and chanted the Marseillaise, holding up signs reading “no to 64” and “democracy.” This was the scene that epitomized the political storm France got into.

“By virtue of article 49.3 of the Constitution, I engage the responsibility of the government,” Borne shouted, announcing that the controversial pension reform that raises the minimum retirement age in France from 62 to 64 years would be approved without a vote in the Lower House.

Something is wrong with the French political system

Article 49(3) allows the Prime Minister to act unilaterally. The only way to stop a bill passed under this rule would be to bring down the government.

The headwinds of what many perceived as an authoritarian move were also blowing outside Parliament, following weeks of protests against pension reform. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Paris and other cities across the country, some staying late into the night clashing with riot police.

“This shows that something is not right in the French political system. We can see it in our regular polls, which show that people want a more participatory democracy in which unions and civil society are involved in drawing up legal texts. Bruno Cautres of the Paris-based Center for Political Research told DW.

For now, the opposition parties have presented two motions of censure that will be put to a vote this Monday (03.20.2023).

Will the government survive the motion of no confidence?

The French government received the support of the leaders of the conservative republicans. Their 60 votes would give President Emmanuel Macron’s minority coalition the necessary majority to reject the vote of no confidence. However, the same leaders had already pledged their party’s backing for the pension reform. But not enough Republicans agreed to follow that initiative, so the president considered a parliamentary majority for his reform unlikely and decided to activate 49.3.

Vincent Martigny, a professor of political science at the University of Nice and at the Polytechnic School of Paris, believes that the measure plunged France into a political crisis that is here to stay, at least in the medium term. Although Macron’s job is not directly threatened, running the country seems destined to become a headache.

The precise moment when Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announces that the pension reform will be carried out by decree.

The government is “mortally wounded”

“The government in its current form is mortally wounded, like a bullfight,” Martigny told DW. Borne would almost certainly have to resign, he added.

“If one of the no-confidence motions goes ahead, the government will fall and it is likely that the president will dissolve the National Assembly,” warns Martigny. “If the government survives the vote, Macron can withdraw the reform, which seems very unlikely, or keep it, which will trigger a social crisis of unknown consequences that could include early parliamentary elections,” he points out.

The president, for his part, argues that France needs reform to maintain its financial credibility in international markets, where it refinances its debt which is around 110% of French GDP. “I consider that the financial and economic risks (of not carrying out the reform) are too great,” Macron told the cabinet on Thursday, according to a statement from his office.

“But unlike what happens in countries like Germany, the French are not concerned about public debt. For them it is a secondary issue,” underlines Martigny. The pension system, on the other hand, is at the center of their concerns. “The French practice what I would call welfare nationalism: they are very attached to their system of redistribution and consider it a crucial part of their identity.”

Is there a way out of the political crisis?

Cautres believes that the only way for Macron to return to calmer political waters in the short term is to achieve a majority in Parliament. “Either he forms a stable coalition agreement with Los Republicanos or dissolves the National Assembly hoping for a better result in the next parliamentary elections,” says the expert.

But Benjamin Morel, a political analyst and professor of public law at the Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas University, doubts that these strategies will work. “The Republicans are not reliable partners, they seem like a bunch of free electrons without much party discipline,” he tells DW.

In addition, early parliamentary elections could harbor another risk. “The extreme right is likely to gain ground, as it has managed to build a respectable image for itself during debates in Parliament by being against reform and on the side of the people. And democratic fatigue, as we are now seeing, often leads to abstention or vote in support of the extremes”, observes Morel.