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What is going on in France: explained

On Thursday, March 16, French President Emmanuel Macron and his government, led by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, approved a controversial reform of the pension system. The reform provides for an increase in the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 years.

The decision was communicated yesterday afternoon, and it came without going through a vote by the National Assembly, the French lower house. Borne communicated to the MPs of the National Assembly the decision to appeal to article 49.3 of the Constitution.

Before taking the floor, Borne was interrupted by MPs from the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, who sang the French national anthem - La Marseillaise - in protest at the government's decision.

The reform proposal had already caused huge protests across France that had been going on for months. Following Thursday's approval, many people against the reform, unions, and opposition parties took to the streets to protest.

MPs of the left hold placards and sing the Marseillaise, French national anthem, as French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne arrives to deliver a speech on pensions reform bill at the National Assembly in Paris, France, 16 March 2023 (Reuters/Pascal Rossignol)

What happened?

On the morning of Thursday, the French Senate, the upper house of Parliament, voted in favor of approving the pension system reform proposed by Prime Minister Elisabet Borne, of the Renaissance party, the same as President Emmanuel Macron.

The Senate vote in favor was not in doubt and came with a large majority of 193 votes in favor and 114 against. The upper house of the French parliament is controlled by the government and is largely made up of senators from the center-right Les Républicains (The Republicans) party, who are historically in favor of an overhaul of the pension system.

For the reform to pass, it also required the vote of the National Assembly, the lower house and the most powerful branch of the French Parliament. In the National Assembly, Borne's government is in the minority and needed the favorable vote of the parliamentarians of Les Républicains. In the hours immediately preceding the vote, which was due to take place in the afternoon, it became clear that the support of Les Républicains could not be taken for granted and that it would be difficult to obtain the necessary majority of 287 votes. According to several analysts, the vote in the National Assembly would have been uncertain and could have been approved or rejected by 4 or 5 votes.

After several meetings between President Macron, Prime Minister Borne, and her government ministers, it was decided not to run the risk of seeing the reform sink into the National Assembly. Borne then resorted to article 49.3 of the French Constitution.

French President Emmanuel Macron (POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI)


What is Article 49.3?

Article 49.3 of the Constitution was introduced in 1958 by then-President Charles de Gaulle.

De Gaulle deemed it necessary to guarantee himself an instrument to govern in the dominant political instability in the Fourth Republic years.

Article 49.3 allows the French government to pass a bill without going through the vote of the National Assembly, but it can only be used for budgetary bills. Once used, the parliament has the right to present a motion of no confidence within 24 hours; otherwise, the law is approved. The motion of no confidence requires a simple majority in the National Assembly. If it is voted by a majority, the government must resign. If it is rejected, the legislative process can continue.

Article 49.3 has been used exactly 100 times since 1958. The prime minister who repeatedly resorted to it was the socialist Michel Rocard, who held the position during the years of the presidency of François Mitterrand. Rocard resorted to it 28 times.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne also resorted to 49.3 many times, but several analysts and opposition politicians believe that for a reform as important as this one, the parliamentary vote should not have been bypassed. The use of 49.3 is constitutional and therefore legitimate, but in recent years it has been seen as an undemocratic tool, aimed at depriving parliament of its voice.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and French President Emmanuel Macron (Sipa/Jacques WITT)

What does the reform foresee and why is it opposed?

The reform proposed by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne provides for raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, as well as a series of measures aimed at simplifying the complicated French pension system.

There are 42 different pension schemes in France. It is also extremely expensive: in 2020 it  cost the equivalent of 13.6 percent of GDP, more than in most European countries.

According to official estimates and forecasts, the French system may not be sustainable in the long term and risk returning to a deficit, as already happened in 2020. Precisely for this reason, Macron considers the reform of the pension system to be an unpopular but necessary measure to safeguard it.

The majority of French citizens and all the opposition parties oppose the reform project. The French social security system dates back to the Second World War and has always been a source of pride for its people, who see retirement as a release from the hardships of work. This is why union strikes have had such clear success, bringing to the streets at least 1.28 million people (3.5 million according to the unions).

According to a survey by Harris Interactive, 65% of French citizens want the protests to continue even after Prime Minister Borne's use of Article 49.3. Most polls indicate that at least two-thirds of French citizens are against the reform of the pension system.

Protesters attend a demonstration at the Place de la Republique in Paris against the French government's pension reform plan on Jan. 19 (Bart Biesemans/Reuters)

What now?

Even before Borne's announcement in the National Assembly, several demonstrators had taken to the streets to protest. The demonstrations became particularly violent in the evening. Tens of thousands of protesters protested in Paris, Lyon, Marseille, and other French cities.

Opposition leaders Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) party and Jean-Luc Melénchon of the far-left La France Insoumise party tabled two separate no-confidence motions. According to several analysts, however, the no-confidence motions are unlikely to win a majority. For that to happen, Le Republicains MPs would have to vote in favor, a highly unlikely scenario.

It is therefore probable that on Monday, following the vote of the MPs of the National Assembly on the question of confidence in the Borne government, the pension reform will be passed into law.

The cost in terms of political consensus for President Emmanuel Macron has been and will be very high, and it is not certain that the protests will subside. There is a risk that in the coming days and weeks, the strikes called by the unions will paralyze the country. Macron, however, does not seem willing to step back. The French president had already tried to get the reform passed in 2019 but without success. This time, in his second and last mandate, which will end in 2027, Macron wants to try to impress a reformist sign on his presidency.

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