How pension reform protests could topple Emmanuel Macron’s government

Emmanuel Macron denies parliament has been bypassed because MPs will still have a confidence vote - Shutterstock
Emmanuel Macron denies parliament has been bypassed because MPs will still have a confidence vote - Shutterstock

Emmanuel Macron’s presidency is facing its worst crisis since his re-election last year after he rammed through a pension reform without a parliamentary vote.

What are the political implications and can he or his government survive?

What just happened in the French parliament?

After promising to put his unpopular pension reform - which raises the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030 - to a parliamentary vote, Emmanuel Macron enacted a humiliating climbdown on Thursday by ramming the legislation through without a ballot via a “nuclear” article in the French constitution called 49.3.

What was the reaction?

His prime minister Elisabeth Borne was booed by the opposition who called on her to resign and said the move was a denial of parliamentary democracy. Spontaneous protests erupted on Thursday night throughout the country and unions have already called for fresh mass strike demonstrations on Saturday and next week.

Was the move a “denial of democracy”?

It was legal. 49.3 has already been used 11 times by the Macron government and 100 times in the past 60-odd years. However, it is unusual, even irregular to use it for such a flagship bill.

Elisabeth Borne and Emmanuel Macron deny parliament has been bypassed because MPs will still have the chance to express themselves via a confidence vote, which could still stop the reform from being enacted and bring down the government.

When will that take place?

Parties must file for a motion by Friday afternoon. The opposition Left-wing Nupes alliance and populist National Rally party have both said they would back a no-confidence motion tabled by a small, independent centrist group, Liot, which would avoid the embarrassment of having to join each others’ motions.

This will be followed by a debate on Sunday in the National Assembly followed by a vote probably on Monday.

Will the government fall?

Unlikely but not impossible. A vote of no-confidence would require an absolute majority against the government, namely 289 votes. While Mr Macron’s Renaissance group doesn’t command a majority, it should be able to rely on the support of the conservative Republicans, whose leader, Eric Ciotti said he would not back a no-confidence vote. However, there are question marks over whether fellow MPs will fall into line. Several have expressed doubts.

What happens if the government loses the vote?

The prime minister will no doubt resign and Macron will appoint a new head of government and enact a reshuffle at the very least.

He could also dissolve parliament and call snap elections. That is unlikely because given his unpopularity at present, his Renaissance group risks losing even more MPs.

What if the government survives the vote?

The Leftist France Unbowed party has pledged to seek to overturn the reform by filing an appeal with the constitutional council on the grounds that there was no “clear and sincere debate in French parliament”. That could at the very least delay it being enacted for nine months.

It has also mooted seeking a popular referendum - which requires the backing of a fifth of parliamentarians and a tenth of the voting population, namely 4.87 million people.

Constitutionalist Dominique Rousseau said that “there has clearly been a denial of parliamentary democracy” and that in his opinion the government “can no longer govern as it no longer commands a majority even on other bills.”

“I think that if we want to avoid chaos and violence, we’ll either need to stage a referendum or dissolve parliament.”

Either way, is Macron now a lame duck?

French political analysts say that at the very least his reformist credentials are in tatters.

But Maurice Bontinck of Charente Libre goes further. “One question dominates all others after this historic day, namely eleven months after it began, is Emmanuel Macron’s (second) five-year term already over?”

Beyond the man, this political crisis will fuel calls in France to reform its “presidential regime” in favour of a stronger parliamentary democracy free from the constant meddling of an all-powerful head-of-state.

Will strikes continue?

Unions have pledged to push on with strike protests, including on one Saturday and another March 23, regardless of whether the government falls.

Spontaneous protests erupted on Thursday night across France and there were over 300 arrests.

Unions have warned that if the government remains deaf to its demands, it may not be able to control future protests and the country could descend into chaos much as it did during the Yellow Vest revolt of 2018.