Emmanuel Macron’s Constitutional Coup Has Thrown France Into Crisis

Most French people oppose raising the pension age, and there was no parliamentary majority for the change. While the reform has now been railroaded through the National Assembly, mobilized opponents see a chance to finish off an unpopular government.

A defaced portrait of French president Emmanuel Macron is displayed on the road as unionists block access to the Blayais Nuclear Power Plant on March 21, 2023 near Blaye, France. (Philippe Lopez / AFP via Getty Images)

It’d been hanging over France’s retirement reform fight from the beginning — a reminder that, come hell or high water, President Emmanuel Macron intended to have his way.

Last Thursday, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne announced that Macron’s government would “commit its responsibility” (the terse wording for decree in the French constitution’s Article 49, Section 3) to force adoption of a hike in the retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-four. Promptly filed on Friday, two motions of no confidence in response — the only way to reverse a so-called 49.3 —were struck down in the National Assembly on March 20. Enough MPs from the center-right Republicans, ostensibly an opposition party, opted to prop up Macron’s minority government.

Macron’s pension bill is now set to become law, barring a few scenarios like an appeal to the Constitutional Council and a possible referendum initiative to revoke the package. The government’s reform was officially about covering a budgeting hole and calming the supposedly wary financial markets, as Macron is said to have warned in the cabinet meeting last Thursday when the decision to force the legislation was finally made.

Unofficially, pulling off retirement reform had morphed into an obsession for the president, who came to view it as a silver bullet for reaffirming his authority at the start of his second term. The irony now is that Macron has fired the first shot in a political crisis that has left him increasingly isolated.

The 49.3 is one of the most brazen acts of executive privilege allowed by France’s top-heavy Fifth Republic — the political system established by Charles de Gaulle after he maneuvered back to power following a 1958 right-wing putsch. While in last June’s parliamentary elections Macron’s supporters remained the single largest bloc, they lost their majority of seats; already before last week’s pension decision, Borne had used this power to override parliament ten times before, on a string of budgeting bills.

But falling back on the 49.3 for a sensitive issue like pension reform means igniting a political powder keg. The president’s single-minded quest to force his desired reform — one rejected by an alliance of the country’s unions and whose economic justification has been criticized by the state’s own pension advisory body — is dangerously straining France’s governing institutions, astonishing the opposition and even some of the president’s allies.

Will of the People

Short-circuiting parliamentary power, Macron’s government is also riding roughshod over the wishes of the overwhelming majority of French people. Two-thirds of the population reject the government’s package according to most polls. This proportion has scarcely budged throughout the bill’s two months on the legislative docket, with the government refusing to negotiate on the fundamentals of its plan: closing a budget hole exclusively by making late-career workers stay on the job longer; no serious exemptions for the most demanding professions, or for working-class people who join the labor force far earlier than white-collar professionals; and a categorical refusal to raise funds through increased payroll contributions from wealthy earners or employers.

Millions of people have taken to the street since mid-January, when the legislation was formally introduced and placed on a fast-track pathway to rush to adoption in fifty days. If it was not enough to bring the government to reconsider its package, the wave of strikes and protests has at least forced Macron into the embarrassing position of strong-arming his signature reform. It could end up turning into a Pyrrhic victory for the president.

For now at least, that pressure is showing little sign of letting up. Over five nights of protest, unplanned demonstrations have popped up across the country. In Paris, 292 people were arrested on Thursday evening alone. On Monday night, after the no-confidence votes had failed, at least another 234 were arrested in the capital. These figures tower over the number of arrests at the previous, official protests. It also points toward a more aggressive clampdown, with riot police officers charging demonstrators gathered in squares and chasing them through crowded, café-lined streets.

A new national strike day organized by France’s alliance of unions is scheduled for Thursday, March 23. The parties of the left-wing alliance that have led the parliamentary fight against the bill over the last two months are calling for a massive uptick in mobilization. Meanwhile, the opposition movement is showing signs of being radicalized from the ground up, with many in key sectors of the union base eager to move out ahead of their hierarchy and people taking to more random and unconventional actions.

The amount of pressure that would be needed to make Macron pull back now is immense. There is precedent, however, for a government backpedaling after forcing an unpopular law via the “49.3.” In 2006, President Jacques Chirac’s government used the power to enact a reform on contracts for early-career workers, before being forced to retreat in the face of massive demonstrations.

It’s far more likely that Macron would move toward a reshuffle of his government. But for the time being, and despite calls from across the opposition that she withdraw, Macron seems to have decided to keep Borne in place. They’re counting on the mobilization subsiding or fracturing into a radical core that can feed the headlines with images of black blocs run amok. “We have the right to use the word ‘victory,’” Borne said in a meeting with allies on Tuesday. For the president, the failed no-confidence votes itself represents a success: “Winning a vote cannot be presented as a defeat.”

Right-Wing Splits

“In a ballot where everyone would vote according to their conscience, allow me to say that I’m certain that these measures would have a majority, and perhaps even a large majority,” Borne declared before parliament last Thursday as she invoked the 49.3. Here, she leaned on a quote from 1988–91 prime minister Michel Rocard, who under Socialist president François Mitterrand holds the record for uses of the 49.3.

There’s a kernel of truth to what Borne is saying. The government’s retirement reform bill became the shooting ground for a factional power struggle within the center-right Republicans, who have long advocated raising the minimum retirement age. The party’s group in the Senate, where it is the controlling force, finally lined up behind the legislation, a vote that the Macronists are trying to pass off as the stamp of parliamentary legitimacy on the text.

It was in the National Assembly, which concentrates the party’s shrinking young guard, that the party balked. But this doesn’t mean we should buy into the propaganda from dissenters among the Republicans — whose hierarchy was in favor of the legislation — about a compassionate, social conservatism. Ultimately, the force has let Macron take the grenade for aggressively pursuing one of its old, engrained priorities despite stiff opposition and in a strained economic context. The Republicans’ game of good cop, bad cop continued on Monday, with forty-two of the party’s MPs rejecting the leading no-confidence motion and nineteen voting in favor. With the party divided between a wing urging for closer cooperation with the president, and another seeing the party’s salvation in positioning itself fully in the opposition, three of its MPs even voted for a second no-confidence motion introduced by Marine Le Pen.

Officially opposed to the government’s plan, Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National’s rejection of the retirement reform has been refreshingly muted and no less opportunistic, symptomatic of the party’s goal to unite the center-right’s traditional base with white working-class voters. With the 49.3, Macron has handed Marine Le Pen’s force another chance to position itself as guardian of institutional norms, which it seized by introducing the second no-confidence motion defeated on Monday. But if you scratch beneath the surface, the far right has been not too discretely waiting for this scuffle to be behind it, and the chance to force political attention back to its comfort zone and off the streets — as far away from striking workers and mobilized students as possible.

Permanent Coup

“I think that Emmanuel Macron will succeed in getting his reform through,” Rassemblement National MP and ranking party member Sébastien Chenu told Le Monde in early March. “Alas, I even think that the country has resigned itself to that.” Days later on March 7, over three million people took to the street, according to the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) union — 1.3 million, according to the interior ministry. Either way, it was the record since the start of the movement in January.

Fundamentally, that popular pressure was the decisive factor in this battle and prevented the votes from lining up in the National Assembly. In contrast to senators, chosen by elected officials and therefore at arm’s length from constituent pressure, deputies in the National Assembly are directly elected by voters, whose disapproval of the package made it impossible for the Macronists to risk a direct up or down vote last Thursday.

What’s looking like the bitter conclusion to France’s retirement reform fight has exposed a political system buckling under the powers of the presidency. Winning a little under ten million votes out of an electorate of forty-eight million people in the first round of last spring’s presidential campaign, Macron does not have the mandate that he claims. In reality, he was returned to office primarily thanks to the desire to block the far right from power — this being one question where there is still a majority in an otherwise a deeply divided society. On retirement reform, there is also a clear majority — and it rejects Macron’s attempt to eat away at a system that guarantees a relatively large period of time after one’s career to enjoy what remains of life.

But a column of France’s political class had the opportunity to trample over this wish and seized it. It’s the “permanent coup d’état,” as a younger Mitterand described the Gaullist constitution’s balance between executive prerogative and popular representation. There was no Capitol-storming required — just an obliging clique, constitutionally armed and egged on by a headstrong president.