Emmanuel Macron has a catchphrase he often uses with ministers and political allies as they plot action: “You have to take your own risk.”
France’s president did just that on Thursday as he staked the fate of his second term on Reiming through his unpopular plan to raise the retirement age without a vote in parliament. When his prime minister failed to secure a majority for the reforms, Macron opted to use a special constitutional power, known as Article 49.3, to effectively override lawmakers.
Now Macron’s government faces the risk of a political crisis spilling over into the streets, with a no-confidence vote on Monday and another nationwide protest organized by unions on Thursday.
But the 45-year-old president, who sees himself as a reformer on a mission to make France more competitive and dynamic, appears to be betting that he can weather the storm and perhaps emerge stronger by reasserting presidential authority over a restive parliament. It is no longer the majority.
“Macron is not just taking risks for the sake of it, but he will do so with the determination to bring about change in France,” said a person who works closely with him. “He really thinks people need to work longer given the aging of the population and the state of public finances, so he’s determined to end this.”
Macron wants to raise the retirement age by two years to 64, both as a requirement to rid the pension system of deficits by 2030 and as a symbol that France can thrive in the global economy if it embraces its liberal social welfare system.
He told ministers on Thursday that the pension bill could not be allowed to fail because “the economic and financial risks are too great,” a government source said, adding that “one cannot play with the country’s future”.
Whether Macron’s bet pays off will depend on how the pension fight plays out.
Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally and another multi-party group of MPs filed a no-confidence motion on Friday.
If the no-confidence motion is rejected, the pension bill becomes law. A Macron aide said this was the most likely outcome: “I think this will actually show the impotence of parliament and reaffirm the president’s authority.”
But if the no-confidence motion passes, Macron’s ministers will have to resign and the pension law will fail. Although he is not required to do so, Macron could then choose to dissolve the National Assembly and call legislative elections.
Vincent Martigny, a political scientist at the University of Nice, said the no-confidence motion was unlikely to succeed given the divisions between opposition parties, but said the president faced a difficult road ahead.
“This is a turning point in Macron’s second term but we don’t know yet where it will go,” he said. “If the crisis gets out of control, the government will be left in a politically incapacitated position and won’t be able to do much.”
Much will depend on factors beyond Macron’s control, such as whether the protests and strikes that have intensified since January.
On Thursday night, spontaneous protests erupted in Paris and other cities, leading to clashes with police and 310 arrests – a largely nonviolent protest organized by unions and attended by millions.
The hard-line CGT union briefly blocked traffic on Friday morning on a highway ringing Paris, while waste collectors blocked a nearby local incineration site. More than 7,000 tonnes of garbage littered the capital’s streets.
The leader of the moderate CFDT union, Laurent Berger, called the decision to run through the bill a “democratic impropriety”, and the coalition of eight unions has vowed to continue fighting even if the pension bill is finalised.
“There is a lot of anger in the country that will not go away because Macron has declared the end of the debate on pension reform,” Valéry Rabault, a veteran Socialist lawmaker, said in an interview. She added that the left would also try to overturn the pension reform by organizing a public referendum and request a review by the Constitutional Court.
Such initiatives are long shots, experts say, but they are a sign that French institutions are being tested by the rare political realignment created by Macron’s party losing legislative elections in June. This leaves the President without a majority in the National Assembly, and is dependent on using Article 49.3 as a crutch.
Macron’s government has used the clause 10 times before using it to reform pensions, making it the second heaviest user of the mechanism after Prime Minister Michel Rocard used it 28 times from 1988 to 1991.
Macron’s government has already survived several no-confidence votes, but the stakes are higher this time because of the deep unpopularity of raising the retirement age. The period is likely to leave a lasting impression on voters, and may even help Le Pen broaden her appeal. She has already promised to repeal the retirement age change if she is elected president in 2027.
Given the concentration of presidential power, the French constitution has fostered a political culture that does not favor coalitions or compromise. After all, Macron’s Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne spent months trying to strike a deal on a pension bill with conservative Les Républiques, who have long supported raising the retirement age, only to fail due to strong opposition from the president of a rebel group.
Macron’s choice to invoke Article 49.3 for this bill shows that his governing style defaults to the top-down approach typical of French presidents. That is a far cry from his promises in 2017 when he said he wanted to reconcile the distrustful French by governing more consensually with a new crop of first-time MPs.
The opposite has happened: a recent study by Savipoff showed that two-thirds of French people believe democracy is not working well – 10 points more than a decade ago – and far more than in Germany or Italy. A poll by Harris Interactive on Thursday found that 82 percent of French voters view the use of Article 49.3 to pass the pension bill unfavorably, and 65 percent want protests to continue even if the law is finalized.
“That is the biggest failure of Macronism – he wanted to restore trust in politics and instead he has alienated the public even more from government,” Martigny said.