This morning’s news is that the government of French president Emmanuel Macron has narrowly survived a parliamentary vote of confidence, with his opponents falling just nine votes short of the required majority. The victory enables Macron to implement his plan for pension reform, the subject of major strikes and demonstrations over the last two months.
The procedure, under article 49.3 of the French constitution, which allows further votes on the measure to be by-passed, is often referred to as “controversial” or a “special power”, but it is really just a formalised version of a familiar tactic in most parliamentary systems. An Australian government, for example, if in doubt about the passage of one of its bills, may inform parliament that it is treating it as a matter of confidence: putting it on notice that if it votes the bill down, that will be the equivalent of a vote of no confidence.
In France, that procedure has been codified. If a prime minister invokes article 49.3 – which, apart from budget measures, they may only do once in a session – it puts the opposition on the spot. In order to defeat the legislation, it must table a motion of no confidence within 24 hours, which is voted on two days later. Unless it is carried, the bill is taken to be approved.
Although there’s nothing constitutionally improper in proceeding this way, it’s inevitably taken as a sign of weakness. A government is only likely to resort to it if it thinks it might not otherwise be able to command a majority. Last week in France that was still uncertain; Macron knew that it would better politically for him if the bill passed in the normal way, but ultimately he decided he could not afford to take the risk.
The opposition immediately presented a motion of no confidence. It was moved by the smallest of the parliamentary groups, LIOT,* which brings together various centrists and regionalists, and supported also by the four left-of-centre groups and the far-right National Rally. On paper that amounts to 257 votes (in reality 255, since two LIOT MPs didn’t vote), with 287 needed to defeat the government.
Four of the five non-aligned MPs also supported the motion, leaving another 28 required. Since there were no defectors from any of the three pro-government groups, they would all have had to come from the centre-right group, the Republicans, with 61 members. Since the Republican leadership, with obvious reluctance, was backing the government, that was never likely.
But the opposition last night got unexpectedly close, picking up 19 Republican votes, to lose only 278-295 (the number opposing the motion is a notional figure, since only the votes in support are tallied). If it had been carried, the government of Élisabeth Borne would have been obliged to tender its resignation, and Macron would have had to either find a new prime minister who could win over the opposition, offer the opposition a chance to somehow form a government themselves, or else dissolve parliament (only nine months into its term) for an early election.
Only once under the fifth republic has a vote of no confidence been carried, and that was back in 1962 (it passed comfortably; the opposition had 39 votes to spare). The president, General de Gaulle, immediately dissolved and his supporters won the subsequent election. But with public opinion running two to one against the pension reform, Macron has no expectation of such a favorable result if he were to chance a snap election.
Instead the government will carry on – although most probably under a new prime minister, since Borne has been badly weakened and a reset of some sort is clearly called for. Macron will also be increasingly plagued by the question of succession planning; a high-profile prime minister, perhaps someone like current finance minister Bruno Le Maire, could be an annoying rival, but could also improve the chances of Macron’s legacy being carried on into another term.
It all reflects, as I’ve said before, the president’s success in disrupting the old party system coupled with his failure so far to put anything sustainable in its place. He has been forced into greater dependence on the Republicans just at the time when, under new leader Éric Ciotti, they are least sympathetic to his centrism. John Lichfield at Politico worries about the passions aroused by what is, after all, a relatively modest reform:
The hysteria of the pensions debate reflects a shattered political landscape. Since the old left-right system fell apart a decade ago (something that Macron himself encouraged and gained from) politics in France has become nastier and more polarised.
The left is more categorically left. The right has drifted towards the far right. Macron has never properly institutionalized or channelled his “new center”.
In his first term, Macron had to face down a quasi-insurrectionary movement, the yellow vests; that movement originated on the far right but drew in many supporters from the left. For a time it seemed menacing, but Macron held out and went on to win re-election last year. The opposition to pension reform reflects the opposite dynamic, starting on the far left but drawing in the far right as well.
That may or may not make it more durable. Either way, Macron seems to have little choice but to try to tough it out again.
* It stands for Liberties, Independents, Overseas and Territories, which remarkably enough works as an acronym in both French and English.