Staff writer Thomas Ullmo examines the recent wave of French protest action against President Macron’s pension reforms.
After weeks of protests and strikes, some 10,000 tons of waste have piled up in the streets of Paris due to ongoing strikes. But rubbish is not the only thing that’s out of control in the capital. The anger and disenfranchisement of workers and citizens have reached a fever-pitch over what is felt as yet another denial of democracy, inflicted by the Macron government.
France has faced some tumultuous times in these past months, as the government has attempted to push through wildly unpopular pension reforms. This is an attempt to push back the retirement age, despite the constant break-down of dialogue with unions and citizens. Indeed, this reform has generated scathing critics from all ends of the political spectrum, creating a tense political climate in parliament and in the streets. The Macronist camp’s stubbornness and other parties’ relentless opposition to the president’s methods have rendered debate ineffective, and made all parliamentary activity end in a stalemate.
The government’s last hope to successfully pass its reform democratically was to convince Les Républicains(a centre-right party) to vote in favour of it. However, despite days of negotiations, the numbers did not add up, thereby leaving the government without a clear majority in the National Assembly.
As the Prime Minister and Macron-ally, Elisabeth Borne, commenced her walk towards the stage of the National Assembly on Thursday, facing the boos and chants of her opponents asking for her resignation, all knew that she was going to announce what was feared. She invoked the sole tool at her disposal: the constitutional nuclear weapon that is Article 49.3.
This article, inscribed in the constitution of the Fifth Republic, gives the government the power to pass laws and reforms without submitting it to parliamentary vote. The PM had already reverted to this article in the preceding months on no less than 10 occasions, but this time its usage left the protesters in disarray and stupefaction.
Indeed, reports coming out of the Elysée in the past days assured Macron’s supposed commitment to go to a vote, giving people hope that democratic processes would finally be restored and respected. However, as is often the case with this government, what comes out in the press is often contradictory with its actions in practice. Yet there seemed to be true belief from the protestors that the government would avoid using 49.3, considering the grave consequences which such an arbitrary executive decision would bring about. Indeed, this was the equivalent of lighting a candle to inspect a gas leak.
But the president’s desperation and fragility have led him to commit what appears to be an irreversible political mistake. He is whole-heartedly committed to the cause of pension reform, even through Article 49.3, irrespective of some of his closest advisors’ suggestions to the contrary.
This decision reveals the government’s incapacity to rule and represent the people’s interests, and its never-ending loss of credibility. The reform simply has no parliamentary legitimacy. Furthermore, it puts into light Macron’s selfish willingness to gamble France’s societal harmony and political stability in order to reassert his ‘reformist’ credentials. His brutal politics demonstrate contempt towards popular opinion and cynicism towards the democratic institutions of the country.
Yes, Macron won the presidential election, but this was only due to Marine Le Pen’s inelectability; the French people rejected his Ensemble coalition and their hard commitment to pension reform in the parliamentary election. It is time that the president realises that his position does not allow him a political carte blanche.
A Lost Cause?
The only hope left for popular opposition to the reform rested in the censoring vote of no confidence which two parties, the Libertés, Indépendants, Outre-Mer et Territoires (LIOT) and National Rally (RN), have both submitted to a parliamentary vote. These motions aimed to cancel the use of Article 49.3 by overthrowing the government, who would be obliged to resign if they lost the support of the chamber. This is not dissimilar to a British vote of no confidence, except there were two tabled in quick succession by different parties. Despite the votes of confidence being tabled, it was highly unlikely that they would be successful in their attempt to subvert the government. Regardless of the general unpopularity of the reforms, the motions were still expected to struggle to assemble a majority. The votes were held on Monday 20 March.
The head of Les Républicains, Eric Ciotti, whose party holds the power to tip the scales, indeed advised his parliamentary group to abstain from supporting either deposition motion. Whilst some of his MPs are against the reform, he is himself in favour of it. Ciotti stated he does not want to “add further chaos to the pre-existing one” by removing the final support for Macron’s feeble government and bringing it crashing back to earth.
Behind this selfless rhetoric stands Ciotti’s fear of having his party put in front of the voters once again. Indeed, Les Républicans are currently suffering from a historic fall in support, evidenced by the meagre scores it obtained during the last elections – only 4.8% during the presidential election and 61 seats out of 577 in the legislative elections). Supporting the votes of no confidence would have risked their domestic political standing and power in the national assembly. While weak, Les Républicains currently enjoy being the ‘swing’ middle. If another election was called, they would lose this last tenuous shred of power. This dread of an election inhibited their desire to act on their convictions and vote against the Macronists. Thus, political self-interest stands in the way of a democratic revival.
Whilst some members publicly declared they would go against their party’s advice, they were too few. Indeed, for there to be a majority expressing no confidence in the government, 30 Les Républicains MPs had to vote in favour of a censoring motion, far more than what the estimates envisioned. Thus, even before the vote, the government was expected to survive these two votes of no confidence, as it already has done on multiple occasions in the last few months.
The estimates were correct in anticipating the government’s survival; both motions were rejected in the National Assembly. However, they underestimated the amount of Les Républicains that would fall in line, as 19 voted against Ciotti’s advice, 10 more than expected (even though these members knew that they probably were not actually risking an election, and thus their jobs).
Indeed, the first motion presented by LIOT, a cross-party parliamentary group which consists of MPs from the centre-left to the centre-right, was rejected on Monday afternoon. It collected 278 votes, a mere 9 short of the necessary absolute majority. The second, deposited by the far-right National Rally, was also rejected, collecting a meagre 94 votes. The huge gap can be explained by the fact that the other parties did not want to affiliate with Le Pen’s extreme party, which consists of 88 fringe MPs.
Nevertheless, the RN’s vote of no confidence did receive support from six members outside of their party,showing the extremity of anti-Macron sentiment in the country and the National Assembly. The one Socialiste, three Les Républicains and two non-affiliated members who offered their support did so to send a message to the government: we are so against you that we are willing to vote with the far-right. Yet the pension reform will be implemented regardless and the government will not be overthrown – just yet.
Macron’s unilateral decision to use Article 49.3 will have extensive and unnecessary political and social implications. Indeed, it seems implausible to justify tackling the problem of pension reform and budgetary equilibrium at the cost of deep social unrest and fragmentation.
Even from a political standpoint, Macron’s decision is questionable, as going against popular revendications and other parties’ position will leave him more isolated than ever and render the rest of his tenure (four years) a living hell.
It is true that politics is not made in the streets by citizen protesters, but within democratic institutions by elected representatives. Yet Macron has decided to bypass their input and entirely disregard their views by executing 49.3, giving greater weight to critiques of the government’s undemocratic conduct. Around two-thirds of the population are against his pension reform plan.
Saying that the government is acting undemocratically and unconstitutionally is not completely accurate, but it has certainly been interpreted that way. Pushing the reforms through arbitrarily, despite popular discontent, will decidedly not appease the tensions. Above the social ramifications, shown by protests and reconducted strikes in key sectors of the economy, the executive decision will severely affect France’s political landscape before the next elections.
Indeed, this quasi-monarchic behaviour on the part of the president, sparking popular resentment and indignation, will only serve to benefit Le Pen’s far-right movement. This has allowed her to pose as the ‘true defender of democracy’, and the people’s interests, in a true populist manner.
This political and institutional crisis allows her to present herself as the prominent figure of the opposition, and to further continue and support the ‘de-demonisation’ of her party. Fuelled by her presidential aspirations for 2027, she has seized upon this opportunity – in effect, she has already started the campaign. Yet the National Rally fails to mention that it plans to restrict pensions to natives, stating it would allow the country to make savings and fix the budgetary disequilibrium, exposing its anti-immigrant values.
Her party presents itself as the party of compromises, above partisan and ideological barriers. This was evident when she proposed not to compete against Les Républicains if the motion of no confidence was past and an election was immediately called. Moreover, this was further perceptible when the National Rally criticised the political sectarism of the left-wing alliance Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (NUPES), who refused to endorse the RN’s vote of no confidence. This is as a big political turnaround; in October, Le Pen stated she would not support the left’s vote of no confidence as the ideological differences were too important. One is left to wonder what she really believes.
This puts the left in a particular position as well, as they need to defend their stance and opposition to governmental policies, without being too complacent and familiar with the far-right. The decreasing permeability between the two extremes, and their increased acceptability in public opinion, are the direct consequences of Macron’s emergence in 2017 and the destruction of the traditional centre.
The anti-Macronist sentiment has grown so much that two parties who are seemingly opposed on everything are able to find common ground. This is also a result of Macron siphoning off the centre-right and centre-left of the electorate, pushing discontented people to vote for both extremes. These two wings now have similar working-class electorates.
Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité?
So while the government will probably remain in place, it will find it hard to satiate the restless anger of the public. People have already, in the aftermath of Article 49.3’s application, taken their fury to the streets nationwide.
While most participants protested pacifically, some violence emerged, forcing police forces to undertake interpellations and arrests. Police action is likely to prompt further violence and continue the unsustainable climate of turmoil. Civilian violence is evidently condemnable, but so is harsh police persecution. If protests and violent reactions continue, which they are likely to, this will raise a further problem for the Macron government, strengthening the case of the oppression.
Strikes cannot go on forever and the government knows it. But it is impossible to know when they will stop as the anger and resentment run deep. Imposing this reform by reverting to special constitutional powers will prove to be a mistake, as the ensuing democratic and constitutional crisis will have a far more dangerous and destabilising effect than the political one which the government would have faced if it had listened to the people and parliament. Macron will need to be very careful – continuing along this path will aggravate and amplify the wrath of the citizenry. Is mere pension reform worth bringing out the worst of French politics?
People are only seeking to be heard – something Macron pledged to do back in June. Unfortunately, they have been left disappointed by the abandonment of yet another promise.