EEmmanuel Macron did not take any chances. Despite being urged since the beginning of the week by his majority and prime minister not to use this politically explosive tool, despite warnings from the secretary general of the CFDT labor union Laurent Berger, who saw it as a “democratic vice,” the French president nevertheless decided to push through his divisive pension reform using Article 49.3 on Thursday, March 16.
The move enabled him to avoid a high-risk vote in the National Assembly. There will of course be collateral damage for Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who will have to face one or more motions of no confidence. She may pay the price of the reform’s toothed legitimacy and the social repercussions. The Elysee was clearly worried that the bill text would be rejected, as it advanced through the fog brought down by about 15 undecided LR members of the Assembly. But forcing the reform through is also an admission of weakness and a statement on Macron’s isolation.
This decision by the Elysée Palace was made in an unfavorable social context. For a number of weeks, the government and a large part of the majority knew that the battle of public opinion could never be won. With a very weak government, Borne and a few ministers defended the increase in the retirement age from 62 to 64 years by praising, first, the need to save the pay-as-you-go system, then by highlighting measures of “justice” and “progress.” Withoutsuccess. The polls showed that a majority of French people remained strongly opposed to the reform. This opposition was further strengthened by a rare show of unity from the trade unions, including the more moderate CFDT union, which organized eight days of mobilization across France. Against opinion and against the social front, Macron still thought he could get his reform through the quagmire of the National Assembly. He tried to find allies and votes one by one, as if in a long episode of House of Cards.
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But in the Assembly, Macron no longer holds the power that he once had. In September 2022, stuck with only a relative majority, he had thought of attempting to pass the pension reform through an amendment to the social security budget bill. Borne was firmly against this, believing the method to be too hasty and too brutal. Macron realized that he would need support from the right, a political faction that he has not stopped fracturing since 2017. After consultations without results at the end of the year, Macron reached a deal with Eric Ciotti, the new LR president; Olivier Marleix, president of the LR group in the National Assembly; and Bruno Retailleau, president of the LR group in the Senate. It was an arrangement based on circumstances, but not a reconciliation. Macron wanted his reform to be passed. Ciotti wanted to paint LR as a party capable of governing before clashing over the next projects, including the immigration bill.
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