When it came to it, the vote was too close to call, and the Left and the unions called the President’s bluff instead.
According to the Prime Minister, Élisabeth Borne, the age of retirement in France will go up from 62 to 64 not with the approval of the National Assembly but by way of a rarely used article of the constitution, known as 49:3. This guillotine device, drafted originally by those around Charles De Gaulle to protect him from extremists on the Far Left, would allow the government to impose its will on the legislature if satisfied that debate had reached a stalemate and could make no further progress.
As a result, democracy in France is expected to return wholeheartedly to the streets. The hard left, joining with the far right and the trade unions, will support what promises to be the mother of all protests, with consequences that can only be imagined.
Something has to give. But who will climb down first? Will anyone? Or is France doomed to enter a level of civil disobedience not seen since the evenments of 1968?
Right up until 3pm, when the 577 deputies of all parties returned from their lunch break, the assumption had been that the controversial pension reform Bill, rejected by some two thirds of the French, would be put to a vote. Macron had been advised that his party, En Marche, and its allies, totalling 250, plus most of the 61-strong centre-right deputies belonging to the Republican Party, would come down in favour of the Bill. But with tempers raging among the 318 members on the opposition benches and with last-minute indications of a mini-rebellion within his own ranks, the President was suddenly at risk of a defeat that would have stripped him of much of his remaining authority.
Macron responded with defiance. He was not prepared, he said, to play games with France’s economic future. He would fight to the end to do what had to be done if the country’s pensions system was to avoid bankruptcy.
But the choices facing him were not appealing. He could press ahead with the vote and hope for the best; he could pause the Bill and either redraft its more contested provisions (i.e most of it) or else call fresh elections to the Assembly. Or he could go for broke and risk everything on 49:3. He chose the nuclear option. The explosion was immediate, with the political fall-out extending into every corner of France.
In the Palais Bourbon, home of the French Parliament, Opposition deputies raised a blizzard of placards screaming “No to 64”. The uproar was relentless, drowning out the Prime Minister as she sought to explain the President’s decision. It was as if one of the world’s oldest and most staid parliamentary bodies had been taken over by MPs from one of the shakier republics of Central America or the Caucasus.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France Insoumise (France Unbowed), the 74-strong Corbyinist wing of the Left in the Assembly, will have been kicking himself that he was not able to join in the fun. He chose last year not to stand for the legislature but instead to challenge Macron directly in the race for the Élysée. But, as it happens, he may now find himself the most powerful leader of the Opposition by way of the street.
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Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, who now leads the far-right National Rally in the Palais Bourbon, with 88 deputies at her command, chose to put down a motion of censure on the use of article 49:3, amounting, in effect, to a vote of no confidence in the President. The Left, which has always opposed such motions as an indulgence and which would normally not wish to be seen acting in alliance with the Right, soon after put down one of its own – a first. Macron could now find himself at the mercy of the Republicans, whose hardline leader, Eric Ciotti, said the recourse to 49:3 was “chaotic and scandalous” but wishes to be seen as unaligned to the political extremes. Whatever happens, the lofty President will from now on be living from day to day rather than in the grand manner that he imagined for himself when he seized the top job in 2017, aged just 39.
As for retirement at 64, the attempt to bring France into line with the established trend around Europe looks now to be a lonely hill on which to die. Short of withdrawing the Bill and putting up the shutters in the Élysée, Macron’s only way forward consistent with looking still to be what George W Bush once called the Decider, is to call new elections. But if he does, on the theme of Who Governs France?, he could lose, leaving him as the lamest of lame ducks, humiliated to a degree unprecedented in the Fifth Republic. Only if he won could his reputation recover, and a lot of blood would be spilled along the way.
What happens from here on in depends on the unions, the Opposition in the Assembly, the morale of En Marche and, most of all, the mood and determination of the people of France. Opposition groups are talking of an appeal to the Constitutional Council and of campaigning for a referendum on the issue. If a national strike is successfully called and they take to the streets in their millions, with violence almost certain to erupt in the capital and other big cities, all bets are off.
Macron had hoped to out-face the unions (and the people) by standing firm and relying on the numbers to see him home. His argument had merit. The reform Bill had been debated in the Assembly for weeks on end. The Opposition had lodged literally thousands of amendments and were clearly unwilling to consider the legislation in anything like its existing form. The Cabinet, however, had given it unanimous backing (which in France means something) and just yesterday morning the measure was passed by the Senate, with only minor amendments, after two weeks of detailed consideration. Moreover, the mass protests called by the unions, intended to bring the country (and democracy) to its knees, were leaking support by the day, leading many to suppose that the Bill would reach the statute books regardless of its lack of popular appeal.
The only question now is, are the people up for the fight, or are they, even at this late hour, reluctant to take France down a revolutionary road that could end in chaos.
It will have come as a shock to the President when his party managers and others came up at lunchtime with the advice that, if the Bill was put to the vote, he would probably lose and that not even all members of his own party were guaranteeing their support. This was not what he was counting on. This was not how it was supposed to go. It will have been with a trembling hand that he next reached for the nuclear button.
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