The French government aroused controversy by forcing through a controversial measure to raise the retirement age to 64 without a vote by using Article 49:3, causing protests from opposition parties and the citizenry.
On Thursday, March 16, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced the exceptional move to use the procedure of the so-called Article 49:3 of the French constitution to ram the pensions bill through the National Assembly without a vote citing demographic and monetary reasons for using the bypass.
“We can’t take the risk of seeing 175 hours of parliamentary debate collapse. We can’t take the risk of seeing the compromise built by the two assemblies dismissed,” Borne said at the top of her voice, trying to overpower the wholly unruly Assemblee amid shouts from left-wing lawmakers singing the Marseillaise and brandishing placards that said “No, to 64 years!,” and, “Democracy” against the reform.
The move to bypass the Lower House has rarely been used before and never on such sensitive issues as the currently proposed pension reform, raising the retirement age by two years to 64.
France, like the majority of industrialized countries, suffers from low birthrates, making it impossible to sustain current pension payments as there are not enough young workers to support the growing retired population.
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But any move to decrease social security payouts is inherently problematic, given that most retirees have spent decades paying taxes into the system.
Borne defended the measure as an act to uphold democracy: “We cannot bet on the future of our pensions. This reform is necessary. It’s also because I am attached to our social model and because I believe in parliamentary democracy. It is your reform, on Parliament text, the fruit of a compromise between the two assemblies, that I am ready to engage my responsibility, “she said.
The 49:3 constitutional clause also states that the ministry council will take full responsibility for the enforced law and its possible adverse effects in case of such a congressional leapfrog.
“Based on article 49, paragraph 3 of the Constitution, I engage the responsibility of my government on the entirety of the bill of amending the financing law of social security for 2023, modified by the amendment of coordination communicated in the National Assembly.”
The deployment of the special measure reflects the inability of French President Emmanuel Macron and his government to garner enough of a majority in parliament.
White rabbit legislating
According to a source present at the Elysee, Macron told Borne and others he had wanted to go for a vote. As expected, the bill had already passed the Senate earlier that day, thanks to support from conservative Les Republicains (LR) senators.
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But the upcoming afternoon vote in the Lower House seemed less favorable for the ruling block. As LR lawmakers were divided on the matter, Macron reneged on his pledge for a vote and pulled out article 49:3 like a magician’s white rabbit.
“I consider that the financial, economic risks (of the bill being voted down) are too big,” he said, adding that he backed the move to skip the vote.
“By resorting to 49:3, the government demonstrates that it does not have a majority to approve the two-year postponement of the legal retirement age,” Laurent Berger, the leader of CFDT, France’s main union, said on Twitter, urging authorities to “listen to the workers.”
Opposition parties on both the left and right decried the government’s move.
“This government is not worthy of our Fifth Republic, of French democracy,” Fabien Roussel, head of the French Communist Party, said.
Right-wing leader Marine Le Pen said Borne should resign. “This last-minute resort to 49:3 is an extraordinary sign of weakness,” she said, adding: “She must go.”
She said that her National Rally party and the left-wing France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party would push for a vote of no confidence, which must be issued within 24 hours. It is the only way lawmakers have to get the bill off the table, but it’s unlikely to pass as most conservative legislators would not back it.
But not only within the walls of Parliament did the power grab arouse turmoil. Socialist Party head Olivier Faure told Reuters earlier on Thursday that such a move could unleash “an uncontrollable anger” after weeks of rolling strikes and protests, and so it did.
Immediately when the news broke that the law was passed without the consent of the Lower House, demonstrations and riots broke out in several French cities.
Reuters contributed to this report