What’s next for France’s pension reform?


After the French government this week survived two no-confidence votes sparked by the use of special executive power to push pension reforms through parliament, President Emmanuel Macron faces public outrage and constitutional appeals amid swirling rumours of a dissolution of parliament, a change of government and even a referendum on the new retirement measures. FRANCE 24 takes stock of what’s next in French politics.

Following a series of dramatic days in French politics, controversial pension reforms were adopted on Monday the hard way. French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne rammed through the bill in the National Assembly, the lower house, last week by invoking Article 49.3. The constitutional clause grants the government executive privilege to pass a bill without a parliamentary vote and gives the opposition the opportunity to respond with a no-confidence vote.

On Monday, March 20, the government narrowly survived the no-confidence vote, paving the way for the adoption of the pension reforms, which extends the official retirement age from 62 to 64.

But opponents of French President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms are not caving in and they still hope to force a government backdown before the new law is enacted.

The far-left NUPES (New Ecological and Social Popular Union) alliance has vowed to use “all means” at their disposal to defeat the despised pension reform. These include mass protests, holding a public referendum to try to overturn the reforms, and appealing to the Constitutional Council with the aim of invalidating the law on procedural grounds.

On the streets with an eye on the past

The next steps are likely to be played out on the streets of French cities and towns. Spontaneous demonstrations started erupting on Thursday night, after the government invoked Article 49.3. Following Monday’s no-confidence votes, they turned violent, with some protesters erecting barricades, destroying public property and burning garbage that has been piling up in the French capital due to the waste workers strike over pension reforms. Hundreds were arrested after a night of protesters playing cat-and-mouse with riot police across France.

In addition to the spontaneous displays of discontent, trade unions are continuing nationwide strikes, which have gripped France since the start of the year. French unions have called another day of strikes on Thursday, March 23. So far, the eight nationwide strikes called by the unions this year have been peaceful. Following the dramatic political events over the past few days and the unruly spontaneous demonstrations on the streets, there are heightened fears of violence.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, firebrand leader of the far-left France Unbowed (La France Insoumise, LFI) party, called for public protests at a press briefing near the National Assembly. “I hope that this popular discontent is expressed on a mass scale at any place under any circumstances, and that it enables us to obtain the withdrawal of the text,” he said.

In the past, mass protests have succeeded into forcing French governments to back down. The opposition regularly cites the example of the 2006 youth employment reforms under then prime minister, Dominique de Villepin. The law covering the New Employment Contract – CPE as it’s known in France – provided a two-year trial period for young people, and it was also adopted by invoking Article 49.3. Following mass protests however, the law was finally suspended and then abolished by a new vote.

The next step: the Constitutional Council

French opposition lawmakers have other tools at their disposal to try to rescind the new pension law. They include an appeal to France’s Constitutional Council. It is charged with ruling on the constitutionality of new laws before they can be implemented.

The defeat of the no-confidence votes on Monday cleared the way for the adoption of new pension legislation, but the law does not yet have the green light for implementation. 

A Constitutional Council appeal enables the suspension of the implementation deadline until it examines the new law within a one-month deadline. But under Article 61.3 of the French constitution, the government can ask the council to examine the text on an urgent basis, which reduces the deadline to eight days.

On Monday night, Borne announced that she will refer “directly to the Constitutional Council” for an examination “as soon as possible”, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office. The prime minister hopes that “all the points raised during the debates can be examined”, the statement added.

Referendum: putting it to the people

Another option is a public referendum, or the referendum d’initiative partagée (RIP).

An RIP request was also submitted to the Constitutional Council on Monday after the government survived the no-confidence votes.

A constitutional weapon at the disposal of French parliamentarians, the RIP requires a complex combination of parliamentary and voter endorsements.

French lawmakers organising a “popular consultation of a bill” require an endorsement of one-fifth of the members of both houses of parliament, or at least 185 of the 925 parliamentarians in the 577-member National Assembly and 348-member Senate.

It must also be “supported by one tenth of the electorate”, or 4.87 million people, whose signatures must be collected within nine months.

Around 250 parliamentarians, mainly left-wing lawmakers from both houses, submitted an RIP request to the head of the National Assembly on March 17.  The request was transmitted to the Constitutional Council, which must now verify if the conditions for calling a referendum are met.

According to Valérie Rabault, the Socialist vice-president of the National Assembly, the procedure would “block the implementation of this reform for nine months”. But “if a RIP is triggered on pensions, it must be before the implementation of the law”.

Dissolving the National Assembly, firing the prime minister

“Only one solution: dissolution,” has become a slogan over the past few days among opponents of the pension reform seeking a dissolution of the National Assembly.

The possibility of the president dissolving the National Assembly was a talking point among his party members following the June 2022 parliamentary elections, when Macron’s centrist movement failed to win a majority in the lower house.

Under the French constitution, the president has the right to dissolve the National Assembly, triggering fresh parliamentary elections. 

Macron himself privately threatened to dissolve parliament in case of a parliamentary gridlock

It was still a threat last week, before the government was forced to invoke Article 49.3 since Borne was not sure of getting the minimum 287 votes in the National Assembly needed to approve the pension reform.

Following Monday’s tight no-confidence vote, the prospect seems even less likely.

In any case, it’s a risky move. In 1997, then president Jacques Chirac tried the move, which cost him his majority.

If new parliamentary elections are called, it’s also difficult to predict the results. Theoretically, the far-left NUPES coalition should make gains following the mass anti-pension reform mobilisation. 

But analysts warn that the most likely winner of a re-election would be Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, thriving once again on French discontent.

The recent pension drama could cost Prime Minister Borne her job, according to many experts. They note that Macron could change his prime minister in a bid to give a new impetus to the rest of his second – and last – presidential term.

Some analysts say Macron might wait a while before he changes the head of government. They note that the president may not want to be seen as throwing a prime minister, who stuck it out with a difficult reform, under the bus – or at least immediately.

For now, the messaging from the Élysée presidential palace has been resolute. Following a meeting with his political allies on Tuesday, Macron declared he would not be “be rushed into anything”, a participant told the AFP. The opposition and the electorate however may not be as patient.

This article has been translated from the original in French.



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