- Interview by
- Harrison Stetler
This Monday, a vote of no confidence failed to topple the French government under Élisabeth Borne. President Emmanuel Macron’s prime minister since this spring, Borne was forced to use a special article of the French constitution to force the passage of the French state’s budget for 2023. A kill switch on parliamentary debate designed to avert paralysis, the so-called “Article 49.3” allows the government to enact legislation unless most MPs vote to censure the government. A successful no-confidence vote would have paved the way for a dissolution of parliament and a new round of legislative elections.
Proposed by deputies of France’s left-wing Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Social (NUPES) alliance, the vote of no confidence won 239 votes in the final tally. Coming within fifty votes of censuring the government, the Left’s motion received the last-minute support of the 89 MPs of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally caucus.
There was no prior negotiation between the opposing left-wing and far-right forces. Nonetheless, the circumstantial convergence has nourished accusations of connivence between the NUPES and Le Pen, with Macronist surrogates attempting to position themselves as the vital guardians of a republic under attack from the extremes.
Article 49.3 is usually designed to discipline a recalcitrant majority party, so the Borne government’s use of the article was ostensibly riskier because her government only has a “relative majority” — it is the largest single force, but does not hold an absolute majority of seats. However, Macron’s governing majority was saved by the silent approval of the center-right Republicans, who rejected the vote of no confidence and are facing increasing pressure to work with the government. On October 26, Prime Minister Borne deployed Article 49.3 for the third time in under a week, forcing the approval of the budget for France’s social security system.
Danièle Obono has represented Paris’s seventeenth legislative district in the National Assembly since 2017. She is a member of France Insoumise, the largest party in the left-wing NUPES alliance. Obono spoke with Jacobin’s Harrison Stetler about the budget bill, the uneasy balance in France’s parliament, and Article 49.3, which is set to become a trusted tool for Macron’s fragile majority.
Before we talk about the tricky parliamentary politics behind this week’s failed vote of no confidence, I’d like to talk about the actual legislation at the bottom of all of this. What is (and what isn’t) in the 2023 State Budget?
For the Macronists, this budget represents the end of the COVID parenthesis. What was deemed necessary during the health crisis — putting a pause on austerity, even if they kept closing hospitals and public services, or conceding to several items like emergency credits and expenditures — needs to be ended to enable a return to business as usual. But the emergency is still there, with underfunded and understaffed hospitals. A few days ago, a public letter by several hundred health care workers alerted that hospitals were already saturated with the return of the seasonal flu.
This return to austerity is also happening against the backdrop of a return of social conflict, if we take into account what’s been happening in the country just over the last few weeks, with wage strikes from workers (like in the refinery sector) developing into calls for salary increases throughout the economy.
With this budget, the government is rejecting the policies that we propose, like the establishment of taxes on windfall profits, and the idea that those who are profiting from the inflation crisis need to pay their share. Instead, they’re preferring to prop up big business, with exonerations from already existing taxes.
This budget does not respond to the challenge of inflation and does not respond to what our public services and the population need. This budget reflects [the Macronists’] incapacity to truly react to the deepening crises facing capitalism and the environment. Even within a parliament that might otherwise be the occasion for compromise, they’re unable to think out of their habitual neoliberal logic, which is why they had to fall back on strong-arm tactics like Article 49.3.
The high cost of living is the chief preoccupation of French people today — this, as a number of the state’s key relief measures are set to be wound down in the coming months. What does this budget do to respond to inflation?
A lot of the anti-inflation measures — the gasoline rebate and price caps at the pumps — are measures that they are putting in place outside of the budgetary framework. They keep saying, “we’re protecting the French people,” but the reality is that it’s the French people who are protecting themselves, because these measures are being implemented via the public treasury. Our argument is precisely that they’re making the French people pay for their own price caps!
Rather, it should be the people and businesses that are profiting the most [from inflation]. For example, there should be price freezes on essential goods and energy, but the bill needs to be paid for by shrinking the profit margins of the major producers and suppliers. That way we’d have price cushions that are truly paid for by everyone, according to their means and not only by dipping into the public purse.
That’s the heart of the disagreement. Even if the government extends the price caps, they’re going to do so in a way that will have the French people footing the bill while they spare the big businesses profiting from it all.
Flaws in laws are usually approved by amendments. Macron announced a “new method” of governing last spring, one that seemed to augur a greater role of opposition forces. How is that working out?
Little has changed. In the government’s communication, we always hear about the need to be “constructive.” But to judge by the government’s actions, there’s a continuity with the preceding term: strong-arm moves, whether in parliament or toward social movements. In parliament, the use of Article 49.3 stops all debate and forces the passage of text. It shows that the government is weak, because even within the majority there are people who were ready to concede to redistribution measures and taxes on superprofits. They’re refusing even to listen to members of their own coalition who are arguing for small overtures in that direction. As soon as you go forward with Article 49.3, the government can decide what stays in the final version of the bill or not.
The form ultimately matches the content: their brutality is the expression of a political program that is unable to count on collective support because it rests fundamentally on inequality and the accentuation of inequalities.
As you point out, even members of Macron’s coalition sought to distance themselves from the government by including emergency tax hikes, measures that were ultimately withdrawn from the final bill. What do you make of the divisions within the Macronists?
There’s a lot going on here. First, I think that a number of these MPs, including those within Macron’s party Renew, are not entirely disconnected from what’s going on within French society. It’s a result of the campaign that we’ve led on the need to tax superprofits, which had a wide impact that succeeded in forcing this issue to the front of the public debate. They’re also under this pressure.
Then there’s the fact that although we’re at the beginning of a new term, we’re also at the end of the reign. Everyone [within the Macronists] is feeling the need to position themselves for the post-Macron era. So within the presidential coalition, there are many political currents that need to present themselves as being somewhat independent, legitimate outside of their own camp, and able to enact policies that advance the general interest.
This can go in both directions of course. Around former prime minister Édouard Philippe, for example, you also have people that are calling for an extremely maximalist path on retirement reform. What’s going on is a power struggle between the several currents that make up Macron’s coalition, who are all trying to jockey to be best situated for the post-Macron era.
The use of Article 49.3 was pretty much inevitable, like the failure of the votes of no confidence. You said that we’re at the “end of the reign,” but France’s parliament is not as paralyzed as that implies. Neither is Macron, who at the end of the day seems to be getting what he wants.
Of course, which is exactly why we’re so critical of the ultra-presidentialism of the Fifth Republic. In the text [of the constitution], there’s at least in theory supposed to be a balance between a strong president and a parliament with a number of its own prerogatives. We focused on that in the legislative campaign, arguing that if we win a government with a strong mandate we’d be able to move forward with our platform. But if you don’t actually have a cohabitation, the parliament is really the appendage of the executive. This is the nature of the regime imposed by Charles de Gaulle, and which has only become accentuated over the decades.
What makes it all the more pronounced today is that with the Macronists you have a political force that is entirely dependent on the president, and which has less local anchoring than preceding right-wing political forces.
The last-minute support from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) for your vote of no confidence motion has Macronists crying out that you have sealed an alliance with the far-right. There are likewise those within the NUPES alliance that are less boastful than France Insoumise of a measure that won RN support. What is your response?
The media has largely relayed the lies and insinuations coming from the Macronists. They are likewise hoping to exploit and fuel those within the Socialist Party who have always been opposed to the NUPES alliance by trying to give credit to the idea that we’re allied with the extreme right.
But the fact of the matter is that a member of parliament is free to vote how he or she chooses to do so. We can’t accept or refuse votes. It’s our vote of no confidence that won the most votes. We were fifty votes away from winning a majority to censure the government, while the National Rally had their own motion, which only won the support of their own members. This demonstrates the fact that we’re the principal opposition force, and they merely tried to ride our coattails. Their vote was purely opportunistic: we didn’t go seek it and we didn’t vote for their motion.
It’s all the more absurd as a line of attack given the fact that it’s the Macronists who gave their support to RN deputies seeking parliamentary positions within the National Assembly. This was not a purely technical question: it was a choice to have two National Assembly vice presidents from the National Rally. They’ve been able to count on votes from the National Rally as well, whether to block increases of the minimum wage or the reestablishment of the wealth tax. This, I think, proves the complete hypocrisy of these accusations.
The kingmakers are the center-right Republicans, the group that Macron’s majority is ideologically closest to and with which an informal working relationship seems to be the most likely short- and medium-term possibility. What would it take for that to change? An Article 49.3 on retirement reform?
The problem with the Republicans is that they’re more or less in agreement with the Macronists. But at the same time they’re hesitant to dilute themselves with Macron and want to preserve their own independence. What’s more, they’re within their own leadership contest right now.
Would it be if Macron faced a crisis of authority, or an actual breakup of Macron’s coalition?
Macron has extended an olive branch to create a form of coalition with the Republicans, which they’ve at least for the time being rejected. The key variable will be the state of the social and economic crisis. This is a factor that will determine which side the Republicans land on. If they want to preserve the order of things, they could ride to the rescue of the Macronists. But if the Macronists become increasingly isolated with the return of social conflict, they could judge it more advantageous to jump ship. This could come very quickly and will depend on the development of the climate in wider society.
Beyond the symbolism of it all, a vote of no confidence is ultimately about toppling the government, which would most likely mean new elections. But is this really a situation that you in the NUPES alliance are going to benefit from? One could just as easily imagine a governing crisis turning into a fiasco for the Left. The trajectory of things in Sweden and Italy — also against the backdrop of political fatigue and a cost-of-living crisis—is not promising.
The situation in Italy is totally different, where the “Left” that lost was really just the dregs of the old neoliberal center. We’re on opposite trajectories. Between 2002 and 2022 in France, there’s been a major change in the center of gravity in favor of the radical and alternative left that we represent. The center of gravity of the NUPES is France Insoumise and a strategy and program of rupture. The opposite has happened in Italy, where we’ve seen the total erosion of the radical left.
It’s also not a question of timing. Our thinking is that we have to be ready. We are ready to govern, we have a program and a strategy for that, with propositions and emergency measures. Our attitude has to be about convincing people. If we look like we’re afraid of the possibility of new elections, that’s not very enticing. It’s about giving confidence in a period of crisis. At the end of the day, it’s not about us. The fact of the matter is that the state of the country is getting worse, and people’s daily lives are getting more and more difficult. This winter, as we start to really see the consequences of the energy crisis, it’s going to only get worse.