Macron enrages France by pushing through non-voting pension law. But few think he will be forced


Protesters take part in a demonstration against the French government’s plan to raise the statutory retirement age in Paris, on March 16, 2023.

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A coalition of French lawmakers on Friday introduced a motion of no confidence against President Emmanuel Macron after chaotic scenes in the country’s lower house the day before.

Despite frantic last-minute negotiations and crunching numbers, Macron calculated he didn’t have enough votes in the National Assembly to pass his controversial and long-standing plan to raise the retirement age.

So he resorted to the back-up plan that many – including within his party – opposed; using a special constitutional power to pass it without a parliamentary majority.

The move, which would see the national retirement age go from 62 to 64 for most workers, was announced by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, to chants, jeers and boos from lawmakers.

The reaction was fierce. Union CFDT called it a “genuine denial of democracy” and called for local unions to meet over the weekend, and for a big day of strikes and protests on March 23.

About 7,000 people gathered on Thursday evening to protest at Place de la Concorde in Paris, Reuters reported, where police used tear gas and attacked protesters.

A coalition of left-wing lawmakers has tabled one motion of no confidence, supported by left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Another has been introduced by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party, now led by Jordan Bardella, who has said it will vote for any vote of no confidence.

Members of parliament from the left hold banners and sing the Marseillaise, the French national anthem, as French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne arrives to deliver a speech on the pension reform bill at the National Assembly in Paris, France, March 16, 2023.

Pascal Rossignol | Reuters

Macron, Borne and their renaissance party, formerly En Marche, are expected to pass the vote.

Julien Hoez, a political consultant who has worked with the Renaissance party, says the no-confidence motion will struggle to get the required majority of 287 votes. That is with Mélenchon’s leftist La France Insoumise, Le Pen’s National Rally, the green Europe Ecology party and others who opposed Macron’s bill — possibly including members of the centre-right incumbent Les Républicains. Hoez noted that it will be tight and that Borne may resign.

The strong feelings against the use of the special constitutional measure should not be underestimated, he told CNBC by telephone.

“With the budget it was understandable and acceptable because you need the budget to keep the country running, it made it an easier pill to swallow,” Hoez said.

“Something as important as this had to be done differently to make it work. People think this is undemocratic.”

A protester sits atop a lamppost with a sign reading “Macron at the service of Black Rock, Black Block at the service of the people” as protesters light fires at Place de la Concorde in protest of the French government forcing its retirement bill through the French Parliament without a vote after approving Article 49.3 of the Constitution, on March 16, 2023 in Paris, France.

Kiran Ridley | Getty Images News | Getty Images

While Macron was re-elected in 2022, things don’t look good for next year’s European elections, he said, and at home the renaissance will increasingly be pushed into a corner between left and right and controversy will hamper his ability to push for other measures .

Some opposition to raising the retirement age is about the negative impact it will have on women, public sector workers, and those on lower wages who are getting into work earlier.

For many on the left, the government’s argument that change is needed to ensure the longevity of the pension system and reduce the annual deficit of 10 billion euros ($10.73 billion) is a matter of priorities, especially given its policies, such as tax breaks in favor of the ultra-rich and corporations.

National Rally’s Marine Le Pen, who beat Macron to the top job in 2022, has also taken a stand against the reforms she has called an unfair burden on the people — and some analysts say the measure could boost her popularity.

What if?

If the vote of no confidence passes, the government will be forced to resign for the first time since 1962.

Macron could then either name a new government with a new prime minister or dissolve parliament, allowing new elections to be called.

Holger Schmieding, chief economist at German investment bank Berenberg, said French governments usually won votes of no confidence and he expected them to do the same this time, resulting in the automatic implementation of the pension reform.

If it doesn’t happen, however, “new elections to parliament would go against the alliance of parties that support Macron,” Schmieding said in a note.

“If so, that could turn him into a lame domestic policy duck for the remainder of his term until 2027.”

Macron has already weakened his position, Schmieding added, and a new parliament would likely be deeply divided without a majority.

However, he noted that Berenberg analysts “remain optimistic that France could largely remain what it currently appears to be: the most dynamic of the major European economies.”

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct name for the leader of the National Rally Party.

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