Elisabeth Borne’s armored car, filmed by a horde of motorcyclists, raced toward the National Assembly amid a barrage of flashing lights. On Thursday, March 16, the day marking her tenth month as prime minister, she sat in the back seat of her sedan, swept up in the whirlwind of the reform that would raise the French retirement age from 62 to 64. Everything accelerated during final discussions with President Emmanuel Macron, which changed her destiny: She is now the head of the government reforming the pension system using Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, allowing the bill to be forced through without a vote in the Assemblée Nationale. She could already hear the cries from Parliament, where people were calling for her resignation.
Two hours earlier, at the Elysée Palace, the prime minister was ready to stop fighting, dreading the idea of taking on the role of a political Don Quixote. After a little less than six months of fierce battle, Borne had come to terms with the unpleasant outcome. Abated and angry, just before the final vote on the reform, she accepted the use of Article 49.3. In doing so, she put her political future in the hands of the president. “I accept that I am a fuse,” she said in front of the president, with a handful of ministers and group leaders of the majority looking on.
With their eyes glued to the tally boards, the two heads of the executive branch realized that they were still missing two votes. No one was surprised. Since the beginning of the negotiations with the right-wing Les Républicains (LR), no count had ever resulted in a majority. The LR leaders warned the prime minister by phone that only 28 to 30 MPs out of 61 would vote in favor of the bill. Macron acknowledged that the necessary conditions for a successful passage had not been met, and then expressed alarm: Abandoning the reform would mean a rise in interest rates, a deterioration in France’s image and political instability. In the morning, he had snidely asserted: “Making smart cuts in public finances is not a spontaneous decision, either by the nation or by the administration, and it implies choices that I have to make.” It was like a replica of his “Gauls resistant to change” statement in August 2018, a few months before the Yellow Vests protest movement.
Next to Borne in the ornamental Elysée Palace, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Aurore Bergé, head of the Renaissance (Macron’s party) group in the Assemblée, pleaded, in line with most of the majority, to proceed with the vote, even if it meant losing and plunging into the abyss of uncertainty. “Pure demagoguery,” replied Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire and his colleague in charge of the budget, Gabriel Attal. “The resentment in the country is such that we can not take the risk of 49.3. It is much riskier for the future!” Berge asked. Darmanin suggests dissolving the government in case of failure: “You have to take a vote. If we dissolve now, the RN [Rassemblement National, far right] progress but does not win.” “We are not playing three-cushion billiards,” snapped back Macron, referring to a particularly challenging form of carom billiards.
‘This will be paid for dearly’
At 2:45 pm, a quarter of an hour before the session at the Assemblée Nationale, in front of which protesting unions had already gathered, Macron convened an emergency Council of Ministers meeting to authorize the use of Article 49.3. With this constitutional weapon, the very unpopular pension reform would be adopted without ever having been voted on by the Assembly, not even in the first reading. “There is too much uncertainty,” said Macron in front of his top brass, refusing to “put himself in the hands” of LR, a precarious ally.
“This will be paid for dearly,” said Charles de Courson, an opposition centrist MP who is behind a cross-party motion of no confidence in the government, which will be debated on Monday. Outraged, union representatives blamed “institutional violence” and a “refusal of democracy,” before announcing new demonstrations and a strike for March 23. Thousands of people gradually amassed in the Place de la Concorde to condemn the forced passage. At the entrance of the Assembly, Borne got out of her car and took a breath, as if to say to herself: “Let’s calm down. There are people dying from bombs at the moment.” She then walked into the lion’s den, where the supercharged MPs were waiting for her.
At the podium, the prime minister swallowed her pride, citing her predecessor Michel Rocard and his 28 uses of Article 49.3. If the MPs had voted according to their “conscience, (…) we wouldn’t be here,” she shouted, without hearing her own voice drowned out by the noise of the lawmakers from the left-wing Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Social. “Resign! Get Out!” the far-right MPs retorted in fury, brushing her off with a wave of the hand. Below, Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt looked distraught, while Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti squeezed his shoulder to comfort him. Le Maire, frowning, seemed to be thinking about the battle he felt had been lost from the beginning: The government had made the reform look shameful, he said.
The PM ‘already belongs to the past’
Bitterness took hold of Borne. In front of her MPs gathered in the Colbert Room, she let tears roll down her cheeks. During the 8 pm news on TF1, she blasted, in defeat, those who “played a personal card,” targeting dissenting LR members but also the reluctant partners of the majority. She denied the accusation of authoritarianism, on the grounds that the law passed by using Article 49.3 was the one that had been agreed upon the day before after “175 hours of debate” in Parliament. This failure “is not an individual matter,” she concluded, refusing to say whether she will keep leading the government.
The opposition, however, believes the prime minister’s tenure is over. “Elisabeth Borne already belongs to the past,” said François Ruffin, of La France Insoumise (left), speaking to radio station RTL. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said, “She can’t stay. She knows it.” Even Borne referred to herself as a target on TF1: “49.3 allows the oppositions to file a motion of no confidence that will be voted on. It will be those who are for or against the reforms,” she paraphrased, disconcertingly.
This is Macron’s reform. But, for the time being, the prime minister is bearing the responsibility for the fiasco. Convinced that the bill would pass by vote, she was still pleading with the president at the beginning of the week that it is necessary at all costs to avoid the democratic breakdown of resorting to Article 49.3. On Sunday, she urged her ministers, sometimes taken aback, not to mention this trump card in order to force her opponents to reveal their hands. Behind the scenes, negotiations continue in the hope of snatching the votes of the undecideds or, at least, swinging the opponents into the abstentionist camp. But it was all in vain.
Is it blindness? Overconfidence? Within the government, some are alarmed by the backlash against 49.3. Didn’t the government originally choose to use a financial bill in order to avoid using this option? “Better the natural way than the Caesarean section, but the 49.3 is not forceps. It is the pure and simple application of the Constitution,” said Renaissance MP Eric Woerth.
The ‘Borne method’
Nothing has happened. Borne persists in her approach, just as she persisted for months in thinking that she could win over the LR members of the Assembly to the reform, granting them costly concessions. “They have taken us for fools,” said Aurélien Pradié, the figurehead of rogue LR lawmakers opposed to the reform.
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One step at a time, Borne convinced the president to adopt his approach, which he thought would be more social and less harsh. She was the one who decided to soften the proposal by advocating a postponement of the legal retirement age to 64 (instead of 65). And to delay the presentation of the reform at the beginning of January in the hope of buying the neutrality of union leader Laurent Berger. And to present the reform as “fair”. And to show off the concessions granted to the right, thinking that Eric Ciotti would control his party, which turned out not to be the case. Macron let it happen, concerned about keeping his distance from the quagmire.
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Unfortunately, the “Borne method,” marred by disappointments and PR blunders, failed. In the end, this debacle is also Macron’s fault. Elected on the promising slogan “with you,” the president had envisioned a “new method” of government. “The French are tired of reforms that come from upstairs,” he said in an interview with the newspaper West France in June 2022, before suffering the setback of a legislative election that left him with only a relative majority. Less than a year after his election, Macron is forcing his reform against the desires of the population, unions and Parliament. This confrontation was evident on Thursday evening in the vicinity of the Place de la Concorde, where, after eight days of peaceful protests by more than 1 million French people, the demonstration degenerated into clashes and fires.