Secondextremely thin The French government survived a no-confidence vote on March 20 by just nine votes, opening the way for its controversial pension reform to be enacted into law. The National Assembly result was much weaker than many expected, reflecting a political discontent unlikely to dissipate. President Emmanuel Macron’s immediate political crisis may be over, but popular unrest could still spread.
The opposition needs 287 votes to overthrow Mr Macron’s minority centrist government. That would repeal his legislation that raised France’s minimum pension age from 62 to 64. But the no-confidence motion put forward by the cross-party coalition received only 278 votes. A second effort to overthrow the government, proposed by Marine Le Pen’s nationalist-populist National Rally, failed by a wider margin.
That should mean Prime Minister Elizabeth Bohn and her team can turn the page and move on. The pension reform still needs to be approved by the constitutional committee of the country’s highest court. But it has now passed parliament. Mr Macron judged last week that he would not have the votes to pass the reforms through a regular vote in the lower house, so he used a constitutional provision called Article 49.3 to push it through without a vote. Obviously, this could lead to a motion of no confidence. Mr Macron won the bet.
Politically, however, the decision will leave a bitter aftertaste. Pension reform itself is not popular. Amid six weeks of parliamentary debates, protest marches and strikes (railroad workers, garbage collectors and others), two-thirds of French people remain stubbornly opposed to raising the retirement age. None of the arguments the government puts forward—the threat of future funding shortages, the need to maintain the system even as people live longer—have done nothing to dampen the hostility.
The President’s decision to resort to Section 49.3 further angered people. A full 78% of people in the poll said they were opposed to using this tool. The opposition sees it as an anti-democratic abuse of power. Ahead of the vote, Charles de Courson, who led the cross-party no-confidence motion, called the use of section 49.3 a “denial of democracy”. Protesters gathered in Paris and other cities after dark, some setting fire to stinking, unpacked garbage cans. In several towns, riot police have been called out.
Mr Macron’s dilemma is that, while his pension reform is deeply unpopular, it is the right thing for France. State spends 14% gross domestic product Almost double the average when it comes to public pensions OECD, a club made up mostly of wealthy nations. In 2004, there were 13 million retirees in France. That number will rise to 20 million by 2030 as life expectancy increases and baby boomers retire. Mr Macron, up for re-election in April 2022, could have left the brewing issue to his successor; instead, he decided it was worth expending precious political capital to fix it. “Do you think it would make me happy to have this reform? No,” Mr Macron said in a TV interview on March 22, declaring it “not a luxury, nor a pleasure”, but a “necessity”.
Furthermore, his use of Article 49.3 is unusual, but not unique. Aimed at strengthening the government, the text was written into the Constitution of the Fifth Republic by de Gaulle as a response to the instability of the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle himself used it to launch France’s nuclear deterrence program in 1960. Since then it has been used 100 times by governments of the left and right, including Ms Borne.
Macron’s proposal to raise the retirement age was also part of his re-election manifesto as he and his government try to find a consensus. Ms Borne spent months consulting with union and opposition leaders and redrafting the legislation, making new concessions, especially to center-right Republicans.Parliament spent 175 hours debating the issue, partly to deal with 13,000 amendments NUPES, a leftist coalition led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, aims to prevent any debate. When the legislation entered the Republican-controlled Senate, it was approved — although 19 Republicans in the lower house then voted against the administration.
For Mr Macron, however, the result may feel like a hollow victory. Unfortunately, the reforms were not approved through the normal parliamentary process, to say the least. “We cannot just say the crisis is over now and continue as if nothing happened,” said Gilles Le Gendre, a representative of his party.
The incident would also add to Mr Macron’s reputation for domineering style of governing. Indeed, the president’s approval rating has dropped from a high of 41% to just 28% after his re-election, according to pollster Ifop.This is the lowest point since early 2019, during which yellow vest (yellow jacket) rebellion. It cannot be ruled out that a similar popular uprising will occur alongside the ongoing political chaos. Ahead of the nationwide strike on March 23, union leader Laurent Berger described the aftermath of the vote as “the worst social crisis in a decade”.
Mr Macron has few good options.in combative television In an interview on March 22, the president ruled out an immediate change of prime minister or fresh elections. He is well aware that, in the current public mood, such a vote would not support his party in Parliament. It is more likely to benefit the extreme. At this point, a formal alliance with the Republican Party does not appear to be an option. For now, Mr Macron has bought himself some breathing room to try to restart his minority government, if nothing else. ■