France braces for more unrest after Macron passes pension reform by decree

The French government is likely to face no-confidence motions, while unions have called more strikes in protest of the measure, which will raise the retirement age to 64

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A protest against the French government's pension reform on Thursday in a street in Marseille.CHRISTOPHE SIMON (AFP)

France has entered a moment of political and social unrest. French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to pass his unpopular pension reform via decree — instead of putting it to a vote in the National Assembly — has placed him and his government in a precarious position.

On Thursday, French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne announced that the government was resorting to Article 49.3 of the Constitution to force the bill through parliament without a vote. The news prompted thousands of people to take to the streets of Paris in protest. Since January, there have been eight mass protests against the pension reform, and prolonged strikes in key sectors, such as garbage collection in Paris. Following the news on Thursday, unions have called more strikes.

The French government’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 had already angered the French people. But the fact that the bill was adopted by decree has turned the anger to outrage.

The biggest challenge now facing the French government is a possible no-confidence motion. If a motion passes, the government would have to resign, and the pension reform bill would be suspended. The opposition has 24 hours to present a motion. In order for it to be submitted to a vote, it must be signed by 58 lawmakers. A vote must then take place within 48 hours, meaning Monday may be a decisive day for the French government.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally (RN) party who faced off Macron in the last two presidential elections, has already announced that her party will present a no-confidence motion. The leftist LFI Group, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, may also present another. While a third motion is being prepared by lawmakers from LIOT, a group made up of independents and centrist MPs.

The problem is that even if Le Pen and the left joined forces, they would not have the 289 votes needed for an absolute majority. The motion would fail. For it to be successful, they would need 32 of the 61 lawmakers in the center-right Les Républicains (LR) to support the measure, as well as 20 votes from LIOT. That’s why LIOT’s initiative may play such a key role: it is the most likely option for a motion to prosper.

If a no-confidence motion succeeds, Macron could appoint a new prime minister. He could choose a figure from the right — Borne is a social democrat — and this would allow him to build a stable alliance with Les Républicains. He could also dissolve parliament and call new elections, but if they are won by Le Pen’s party, this would lead to a government in cohabitation, i.e. a divided government where the president and the parliament are from opposing parties.

On Thursday, Éric Ciotti, the president of LR, said: “We will not vote in favor of any motion of censure.” The declaration seems to nip in the bud any chance of a motion succeeding. That said, Ciotti and his party were confident that the pension reform would pass in the National Assembly. But in the end, the government avoided a vote due to the number of rebel conservatives who were set to vote against the bill.

Macron’s decision to pass the pension reform by decree — irrespective of the outcome of the no-confidence motions — threats to cast a shadow on politics and society for months, and perhaps even for years. The president has paid a high price for the reform. Most of the country has turned against him. He has been accused of being disconnected from the reality of the people. And there is greater mistrust in government.

What’s more, the concession the government made in an unsuccessful effort to appease the opposition have reduced the very savings the reform was meant to make. In the end, it is a watered-down text, less ambitious than the initial project and even less ambition than the reform that Macron tried to pass in 2019 and 2020.

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