Bitter pension battle turns to democratic crisis as Macron bypasses French parliament
Widespread rejection of French President Emmanuel Macron’s planned pension overhaul was a key factor in his failure to win a parliamentary majority following his re-election last year. His decision to ram through his deeply unpopular reform without a vote turns an already festering dispute into a political and institutional crisis.
At the height of Thursday’s extraordinary political drama, shortly after the government announced it would force through its contentious pension reform amid a huge fracas in parliament, protesters began to converge on the sprawling Place de la Concorde in central Paris, a mere bridge away from the heavily guarded National Assembly.
For a moment, the old cradle of revolutions looked to be rolling back the years, convulsed by a spontaneous rush of outrage and anger – though protesters only numbered a few thousand.
There were the usual suspects, such as leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, thundering against a reform he said had “no legitimacy – neither in parliament, nor in the street”. Unionists were also out in strength, hailing a moral victory even as they denounced Macron’s “violation of democracy”.
Many more were ordinary protesters who had flocked to the Concorde after class or work. One brandished a giant fork made of cardboard as the crowd chanted “Macron démission” (Macron resign). Another spray-painted an ominous message on a metal barrier – “The shadow of the guillotine is nearing” – in the exact spot where Louis XVI was executed 230 years ago.
“It’s a powerful image, the people taking over this symbol of Paris, at the heart of French institutions,” said 65-year-old George, a retired librarian who rushed to the square after briefly blockading the National Library earlier in the day.
“When you have millions of people out in the streets protesting for weeks, it’s unfathomable that a government should feel entitled to use the 49.3,” he said, referring to the special measure used by the government to bypass parliament, named after Article 49.3 of the French Constitution.
“It’s a constitutional putsch,” George added. “It cannot pass, it must not pass!”
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As night fell, police charged the demonstrators and used tear gas to clear the square, located a few steps away from the Élysée presidential palace. Small groups of protesters moved through nearby streets setting fires, in scenes that were repeated in other cities across France. More than 250 were arrested in the French capital alone.
The government’s brazen move was the straw that broke the camel’s back, said Anna Neiva Cardante, a 23-year-old student who skipped the recent street protests against Macron’s reform but felt compelled to express her outrage at this “denial of democracy”.
“A vote in the National Assembly was the government’s only chance of securing a measure of legitimacy for its reform,” she said as police began clearing Place de la Concorde. “Now it has a full-blown crisis on its hands.”
Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne’s minority government is hardly the first to use Article 49.3, which has been triggered 100 times since 1962. Seldom, however, has it been used to ram through a reform of such scope and so vehemently rejected by the public.
At the heart of the pension overhaul is a contentious plan to raise the country’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and stiffen requirements for a full pension, which the government says is required to balance the books amid shifting demographics.
Unions, however, say the proposed measures are profoundly unfair, primarily affecting low-skilled workers who start their careers early and have physically draining jobs, as well as women with discontinuous careers. They have called for a ninth day of mass strikes and protests next Thursday, invigorated by the widespread shock and anger that followed the government’s move to bypass parliament.
“This reform is outrageous, punishing women and the working class, and denying the hardship of those who have the toughest jobs,” said Neiva Cardante, whose parents – a bricklayer and a cleaner – “are among those who stand to lose most”.
The perceived inequity of Macron’s pension reform has touched a raw nerve in a country that has the word “égalité” (equality) enshrined in its motto. Talk of its unfairness has been a key driver of the mass protests that brought millions to the streets in cities, towns and villages across the country, drawing from well beyond the ranks of the left.
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Polls have consistently shown that more than two thirds of the country oppose the government’s plans. A broad majority of the French has also expressed support for strikes that have disrupted schools, public transport and rubbish collection, burying the streets of Paris – the world’s most visited city – under stinking piles of trash.
The use of Article 49.3 on Thursday amounted to an admission that the contentious reform also lacked a majority in the National Assembly, amid reluctance by many right-wing opposition MPs to bail out Macron’s minority government and brave the wrath of their constituents.
It was greeted with a deafening chorus of boos and jeers in the lower house of parliament, where left-wing lawmakers belted out the Marseillaise, France’s national anthem, as Prime Minister Borne struggled to raise her voice above the din.
Conservative MPs, whom Macron had been counting on to back his reform, were also quick to rebuke the government, warning that its move would radicalise opponents and undercut the law’s democratic legitimacy.
“We have a problem of democracy,” right-wing lawmaker Aurélien Pradié told BFM TV. “This law – which will change the lives of the French – has been adopted without the slightest vote at the National Assembly,” he added, pointing to the failure to hold even a preliminary vote in the lower chamber amid obstructionism from the left. He flagged the risk of a “democratic rupture” in the country following the government’s move.
A crisis of legitimacy
The lack of a mandate to “change the lives of the French” has been a recurrent theme during the recent mass rallies against pension reform, with protesters stressing that they backed Macron in a presidential runoff last year to keep far-right leader Marine Le Pen out of power – not because they endorsed his political platform.
While Macron trounced Le Pen in the April 24 vote, he later failed to secure a majority in legislative elections – becoming the first president to fall short since presidential and parliamentary polls were aligned more than two decades ago. As his own candidates acknowledged at the time, public rejection of his planned pension overhaul was a key factor in the party’s poor showing at the polls.
Political analyst Chloé Morin pointed to a lingering “misunderstanding” between Macron and many voters over the nature of his mandate. She cited his victory speech in April last year, when the freshly re-elected president acknowledged voters who backed him “not out of support for [his] ideas but to block those of the far right”.
“At the time, Macron said he had ‘a duty towards’ those voters,” Morin told French daily Ouest France. “Now they feel betrayed and despised.”
Antoine Bristielle, a public opinion expert at the Fondation Jean-Jaures think tank, said enacting such an important law without a parliamentary vote would further antagonise the country and deepen anti-Macron sentiment, with memories of the Yellow Vest insurgency still vivid. He pointed to an Ifop poll this week showing that roughly eight out of 10 people opposed legislating in this way, including a majority of voters who backed Macron in the first round of last year’s presidential election.
“The 49.3 is perceived as a symbol of brutality, with the potential to erode support both for the government and democratic institutions,” he said, adding that surveys had revealed increasing resentment of governments perceived as ignoring the public.
“People cannot understand why a bill that is so overwhelmingly rejected by voters would be forced through anyway,” Bristielle explained. “This disconnect between legislators and the popular will is no longer acceptable. Voters are no longer content with delegating power for five years.”
Anger at the use of Article 49.3 is also set to further poison debates and result in more gridlock at the already turbulent National Assembly, where opposition parties tabled a motion of no-confidence in Borne’s government on Friday, to be voted on next week.
Having failed to secure enough support for his contentious bill, Macron is now banking on the opposition also failing to gather enough votes to topple his government. The tactic could offer him a victory by default but also jeopardise chances of building parliamentary consensus going forward.
“The risk for Macron now is that he ends up being powerless to get anything significant done over the next four years,” said Bristielle, for whom the president’s top-down approach to government is “ill-suited” to the context of a hung parliament where compromise and coalition-building are of the essence.
His ruling Renaissance party had so far enjoyed a measure of success in navigating the challenges of minority rule, relying on support from opposition lawmakers – sometimes from the left, more often from the right – to pass legislation in a deeply divided National Assembly counting large delegations of MPs from the far right and the hard left. But such co-operation is surely off the cards, at least in the coming weeks or months.
French editorialists were unsparing in their assessment of Macron’s gamble, which conservative daily Le Figaro branded a “defeat” for the president and Le Monde likened to “playing with fire”.
“A climate of political crisis hangs over the country,” read Le Monde’s daily editorial column on Friday, warning that Macron risked “durably alienating swathes of the country, fostering tenacious resentment and even kindling sparks of violence".
Regional daily La Voix du Nord scolded the president for shying away from a vote, arguing that “the risk of an honourable defeat” was preferable to “fanning the flames of social unrest”.
“On this day, March 16, ‘Macronism’ ordered its own death,” added left-leaning Libération, sanctioning the “personal failure” of a president “who came to power on a pledge to rejuvenate French democracy” but only “increased the flaws he had promised to fix”.