After Macron’s use of ‘nuclear option’ on unpopular pension reform, what's next?

A protester holds a placard during a demonstration at Place de la Concorde in Paris after the French government pushed a pension reform bill through the National Assembly without a vote,  March 16, 2023.
A protester holds a placard during a demonstration at Place de la Concorde in Paris after the French government pushed a pension reform bill through the National Assembly without a vote, March 16, 2023. © Thomas Samson, AFP

Several consequences could follow the French government’s use of Article 49.3 of the constitution to pass President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform without a vote in the National Assembly on Thursday. They include a no-confidence motion against the government, the dissolution of the Assembly, and ongoing street protests. FRANCE 24 breaks down the options for the opposition and the president.


After Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne on Thursday invoked the power inscribed in Article 49.3 of the constitution allowing the government to pass bills without a vote in the lower-house Assembly, opponents of pension reform still have cards to play. They hope to force the government to back down before the enactment of the controversial law, which includes a hike in the retirement age from 62 to 64.

In the words of a Paris-region deputy and member of the left-wing NUPES (New Ecological and Social People’s Union) coalition, opposition lawmakers hope to use “all the means at their disposal” to sink pension reform. These include supporting organised protests, tabling a no-confidence vote in the government, launching a referendum to potentially kill the reform, and appealing to France’s Constitutional Council.

A vote of no confidence in the government

In the wake of Borne’s citation of 49.3 as opposition deputies sang La Marseillaise, France’s national anthem, and held placards saying “no!” to a retirement age of 64, deputies from two parliamentary groups tabled votes of no confidence in the cabinet she leads. The first came from the LIOT group (for Libertés, Indépendants, Outre-mer et Territoires) composed of centrists and moderates, and the second came from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National or RN).

Cosigned by the leftist NUPES group, the LIOT group’s multiparty motion is giving the government more cause for concern. It could receive support from other members of the left, the far right and even those members of the center-right Les Républicains (LR), who want to bring down the government and its pension reform. The small LIOT group thus finds itself at a pivot point amid opposition to Macron from both right and the left.

Votes of no confidence must be tabled within 24 hours of the government’s triggering of Article 49.3, and debate may then begin after 48 hours, at a time set by an Assembly body that consists of deputies in various leadership positions. Debates on the two tabled no-confidence votes will begin in the Assembly on Monday, March 20 at 4pm, Paris time. A successful vote of no confidence must gain support from an absolute majority of deputies – 287, at present – which prevents a simple majority aided by abstentions from toppling a government.

With this requirement, it is unlikely that a vote will pass. Even with the support of all 149 deputies in the NUPES, 88 in the RN and 20 in LIOT, the motion would fall short by 32 votes. To overcome this deficit, more than half the Les Républicains deputies would also need to support it, despite party president Éric Ciotti's opposition to such a course of action. That means a successful vote would need the support of unlikely defectors from Macron’s own Renaissance party or his parliamentary allies in Modem and Horizons. 

If either of the no-confidence votes were to succeed, the pension reform law the government passed would be rejected. Macron could then opt to appoint a new prime minister, or retain his confidence in Borne – and, in that case, dissolve the National Assembly, a move that French president Charles de Gaulle made in 1962 during the only such vote that passed since the founding of France’s Fifth Republic.

>> The Debate: French government overrides parliament over pensions, at what cost?

Dissolving the National Assembly

Macron has mentioned dissolving the Assembly as a recurring threat since last June’s legislative elections left his party with only a relative majority. It remained a threat on the eve of the forced passage of pension reform, in the hope of getting Les Républicains lawmakers who were reluctant to vote for the bill to fall in line.

The idea of following in the footsteps of de Gaulle by dissolving parliament after a no-confidence vote would no doubt please Macron. Even some of his supporters see new legislative elections as a solution to the post-49.3 situation. An anonymous Renaissance deputy said that the build-up to the use of 49.3 amounts to “a crash. We need a dissolution” – which, with an ensuing elections victory, would boost Macron’s political capital.

But the manoeuvre is risky. In 1997, then-president Jacques Chirac tried it and lost his majority in the Assembly. The same thing could happen to Macron in 2023 should he hazard the move.

It is difficult to predict which party would prevail in fresh legislative elections. The NUPES leftists could capture many more seats by capitalising on the popular movement against pension reform. But observers warn that the hard-right RN, thriving on the growing discontent in French society, would be the most likely winner. The Assembly could then be more fragmented than ever, making the existence of a majority unlikely.

More protests and strikes

The next stage in the pension reform saga will also play out in the streets. After the government's decision to use 49.3, France’s group of trade unions met and denounced “a denial of democracy” and the passage of the bill “by force”.

“Today, it is this exemplary social movement that demonstrates that the president of the Republic and his government have failed before the National Assembly," the eight main French unions wrote in their statement.

The inter-union group called for “local rallies” over the weekend of March 18 and a ninth day of strikes and protests across France on Thursday, March 23.

After weeks of peaceful mobilisations, the street protests could intensify in a way that escapes the control of the unions. Several spontaneous demonstrations took place in French cities after Borne used 49.3, leading to multiple incidents and arrests.

>> French unions see threat of Yellow Vest rerun over Macron's retirement push

Towards a popular referendum?

The NUPES leftists prefer to reserve several options in their fight against Macron's pension reform. If a vote of no confidence fails, launching a type of referendum called a référendum d'initiative partagée (a shared-initiative referendum, or RIP) could be another option.

A constitutional tool available to parliamentarians, the RIP allows for a popular referendum to be held on a bill if 185 French lawmakers (one-fifth of the combined 577 lower-house deputies and 348 upper-house senators) supports it. An RIP must also be supported by 4.87 million French voters, or a tenth of the electorate, whose signatures must be collected within nine months.

The procedure would allow the pension plan’s opponents “to block the implementation of reform for nine months”, according to Socialist Deputy Valérie Rabault, a vice president of the Assembly. But “if an RIP is triggered” on [the question of] pensions, “it must be before the enactment of the law”, she said.

However, according to French Communist Party Deputy Stéphane Peu, who along with Rabault is a member of NUPES, the left-wing coalition has had the support of the necessary 185 lawmakers since March 14, two days before Borne invoked 49.3. Peu’s bill will propose that “the retirement age cannot exceed 62”, he said.

The Constitutional Council

The RIP is not the last option for opponents if the no-confidence votes fail to pass. “There would have been several appeals to the Constitutional Council against this text had it passed by vote," said Charles de Courson, a LIOT deputy, on March 14.

Mathilde Panot, the leader of the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed, LFI) party in the Assembly, has promised that the left will appeal to the council. The NUPES will argue that the reform, which was inserted into the social security budget, is a legislative rider, since the text addresses more than just finances.

Left-wing deputies intend to rely on the opinion of France’s Conseil d’État (Council of State), which had warned the government of a risk that certain measures in its pension reform plan, as well as the plan’s lack of clear calculations, were unconstitutional.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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