Emmanuel Macron’s government faces two no-confidence votes on Monday brought by opposition lawmakers seeking to stop him from passing his unpopular pensions reform by overriding parliament.
Debate on the motions will start at about 4pm in Paris ahead of a vote expected in the evening. One has been filed by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party, and the other by a small group called Liot, which represents more of a threat to the government since it can attract lawmakers from across the political spectrum unlike that of the far-right.
If the motions fail, which is seen as likely because of divisions among the opposition, then the pensions reform will become law. If one were to go through, Macron’s government will fall and the law will not be passed.
The votes follow a tense weekend in which police arrested hundreds of people who demonstrated from Paris to Rennes to show their displeasure at Macron’s attempt to over-rule parliament using clause 49.3 of the French constitution. While the clause has been used by governments of all stripes since its creation in 1958, using it on a pensions bill that is opposed by roughly two-thirds of the public runs the risk of radicalising street protests that so far have been massive but calm.
Labour unions have already begun to harden strikes in sectors such as petrol refineries and refuse collection ahead of a nationwide protest set for Thursday. On Monday about 8 per cent of petrol stations nationwide were short of at least one fuel, and the situation was worse in the Bouches-du-Rhône region where half were affected and rationing had begun.
Laurent Berger, the head of the more moderate CFDT union, called on Macron to see reason. “The country has gone from a crisis in the streets to a crisis in its democracy,” he told the newspaper Libération. “The president must simply withdraw this reform.”
In rare cases, previous French governments have backed down from applying legislation when faced with strong protests, such as in 2006 when it over-ruled lawmakers to pass a less-protective labour contract for young people via a 49.3 clause, only to cave in shortly after.
The Elysée palace said on Sunday that the president wanted the reform “to go to the end of the democratic process”, while finance minister Bruno Le Maire said the law “should be enacted” if the government passed the hurdle of the no-confidence votes.
The no-confidence motions must win a majority of the 577 seats in the National Assembly to pass, and given that several seats are now empty that means 287 would be needed to bring down the government. Analysts estimated that between 260 and 275 MPs could back the motions.
The outcome will hang largely on the 61 members of the conservative Les Républicains group. Only a handful of LR have said publicly that they will vote for the motions, and party leaders have said they do not want to bring down the government since it would “add chaos to chaos”. The LR are also wary of provoking the fall of the government because that could lead Macron to dissolve parliament and call for snap elections, which they believe could shrink their already diminished ranks.
Charles de Courson, the centrist MP behind the Liot no-confidence motion, urged his colleagues to rebuke the government for what he called their brutal tactics in parliament that amounted to a “denial of democracy”. Voting for the motion “is the only way to stop the social and political crisis: if we continue like this no one will be in control of what happens”, he said on France Inter radio.
Regardless of the outcome of the no-confidence motions, Macron’s ability to enact laws to achieve his goals for his second term, such as reaching full employment or fighting climate change, appears to be severely compromised. After losing his majority in June legislative elections, the president had hoped to govern by forming ad hoc coalitions with the left and the right on each draft law, but the limits of the approach became clear on pensions reform.
The pensions draft bill would raise the minimum retirement age by two years to 64 and extend the time needed to qualify for a full pension to 43 years. Macron has argued that it is necessary to prevent deficits from piling up in the pensions system, which relies on active workers to finance the benefits of current retirees, as the population ages.
Opponents of Macron’s reform argue that there are better ways to shore up the system, such as by raising taxes or asking wealthy retirees to contribute, that would not fall so unfairly on blue-collar workers, some of whom have physically demanding jobs.
France spends about 13 per cent of its national output on retiree benefits, higher than the EU average of 10.3 per cent, largely because the system pays out generous benefits that replace more of workers’ wages than elsewhere. The country also struggles to keep older people in jobs, so the average effective age that men leave the workforce is 60.4, compared with 62.6 in the EU and 63.8 in the OECD.
Without reform, the government expects the pensions deficit to rise to €13.5 billion in 2030. If it passes, the government expects savings of €10.3 billion by 2027 and €17.7 billion by 2030.