Emmanuel Macron has a catchphrase he often uses with ministers and political allies as they plot a course of action: “You have to take your risk.”
The French president did just that on Thursday as he staked the future of his second term on ramming through his unpopular plan to raise the retirement age without a vote in parliament. When his prime minister failed to secure a majority for the reform, Macron chose to invoke a special constitutional power, known as article 49.3, to effectively override lawmakers.
Now Macron’s government faces the risk of a brewing political crisis spilling on to the streets, with a no-confidence vote likely on Monday and another nationwide protest planned by unions on Thursday.
But the 45-year-old president, who sees himself as a reformer on a mission to make France more competitive and dynamic, appears to be betting that he can weather the storm and perhaps even emerge stronger by reasserting presidential power over a restive parliament where he no longer commands a majority.
“Macron does not take risks just for the sake of it, but he will do so out of determination to transform France,” said a person who has worked closely with him. “He genuinely thinks that people need to work longer given the ageing of the population and the state of public finances, so he is determined to finish this.”
Macron has cast raising the retirement age by two years to 64 as a necessity both to get rid of deficits in the pension system by 2030 and as a symbol that France can thrive in a global economy if it adapts its generous social welfare system.
He told ministers on Thursday that the pensions bill could not be allowed to fail because “the financial and economic risks are too great,” a government source said, adding that “one cannot play with the future of the country”.
Whether Macron’s bet pays off will depend on how the pensions battle plays out.
Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally and another multi-party group of MPs both filed no-confidence motions on Friday.
If the no-confidence motion is rejected, the pensions bill becomes law. The Macron ally said this was the most probable outcome: “I think this will actually show the impotence of parliament and reaffirm presidential power.”
But if a no-confidence motion passed, then Macron’s ministers would have to resign and the pensions law would fail. Although he is not required to do so, Macron could then choose to dissolve the National Assembly and call for legislative elections.
Vincent Martigny, a political scientist at the University of Nice, said a no-confidence motion was unlikely to succeed given the divisions among opposition parties, but said the president faced a tough road ahead.
“This is a turning point of Macron’s second term but we don’t know yet where it will go,” he said. “If the crisis spirals out of control, the government will be left in an untenable position politically and not accomplish much.”
Much will depend on factors outside of Macron’s control, such as whether protests and strikes that have been bubbling since January intensify.
On Thursday night, spontaneous protests broke out in Paris and other cities, leading to clashes with police and 310 arrests — a shift from the largely non-violent protests organised by unions and attended by millions of people.
The hardline CGT union briefly blocked morning traffic on Friday on the highway that circles Paris, while rubbish collectors shut down a local incineration site nearby. More than 7,000 tonnes of uncollected rubbish remained on the streets of the capital.
Laurent Berger, the leader of the moderate CFDT union, called the decision to ram through the bill a “democratic iniquity”, and the coalition of eight unions has vowed to continue the fight even if the pensions bill is finalised.
“There is a lot of anger in the country that will not just go away because Macron has declared the end of the debate on pensions reform,” Valérie Rabault, a veteran Socialist MP, said in an interview. She added that the left would also seek to overturn the pensions reform by organising a public referendum, and would also request a review by the constitutional court.
Such initiatives are a long-shot, according to experts, but they are a sign that French institutions are being tested because of the rare political configuration created by Macron’s party losing legislative elections in June. That has left the president without a majority in the National Assembly, and reliant on using the 49.3 clause as a crutch.
Macron’s government has used the clause 10 times before invoking it for the pensions reform, which makes it the second-heaviest user of the mechanism after prime minister Michel Rocard used it 28 times from 1988 to 1991.
Macron’s government has already survived several no-confidence votes, but stakes are higher this time because of the deep unpopularity of raising the retirement age. This period is likely to leave a lasting mark on voters, and could also help Le Pen expand her appeal. She has already promised to repeal the retirement age change if she is elected president in 2027.
Given the concentration of presidential power, France’s constitution has fostered a political culture that does not favour coalitions or compromise. After all, Macron’s prime minister Élisabeth Borne spent months trying to broker a deal on the pensions bill with the conservative Les Républicains, who have long supported raising the retirement age, only to fail because of a rebel faction strongly opposed to the president.
Macron’s choice to use the 49.3 clause for this bill shows that his governing style has defaulted to the top-down approach typical of French presidents. It is a far cry from his promises in 2017 when he said he wanted to reconcile the mistrustful French by governing in a more consensual way with a new crop of first-time MPs.
The opposite has happened: a recent study by Cevipof showed that two-thirds of French people think democracy is not functioning well — 10 points higher than a decade ago — and much higher than in Germany or Italy. A poll by Harris Interactive on Thursday found that 82 per cent of French voters looked unfavourably on using the 49.3 clause to pass the pensions bill, and 65 per cent wanted protests to continue even if the law was finalised.
“That is the biggest failure of Macronism — he wanted to restore faith in politics and has instead further alienated the public from the government,” said Martigny.
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