February 25, 2020

FRANCE: The perils of ramming pension reform through

BY Antonio Barroso

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The intensification of the opposition’s filibustering efforts has led the government to consider using article 49.3 of the constitution to force passage of its pension reform. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is unlikely to resort to the “nuclear option” immediately, however, as he needs time to maintain the cohesion of the ruling majority and blame the opposition for the parliamentary stalemate. As previously explained, the biggest risk for the government is that the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT) rejoins the ongoing protest movement against the proposed policy changes.

The France Unbowed (LFI) party of Jean-Luc Melenchon has doubled down on its efforts to delay the approval of pension reform in the National Assembly (France’s lower chamber), having proposed around 23,000 of the total 41,000 filed by the opposition. Predictably, LFI’s tactics are bearing fruit. Not only the special committee dealing with the reform could not end its works on time, but after eight days of plenary debate, only one of the 65 articles of the draft bill containing the policy changes has been approved.

The government had envisaged a first reading of the draft bill to take place on 3 March, reflecting President Emmanuel Macron’s preference for the vote to take place before the 15 March municipal elections. But at the current pace of discussion, such a vote could realistically only take place in the fall. Prime Minister Philippe has, as a result, started considering the use of article 49.3 of the French Constitution, which would mean that the opposition could only stop the reform if it passed a no-confidence motion against the government.

President Emmanuel Macron does not seem to be willing to wait for the National Assembly to discuss all the opposition’s amendments. Not only would such an outcome increase the risk of renewed concerted resistance against the reform in the streets, but it would also mean that the proposed policy changes would only be approved this year, leaving the government limited room to push forward other initiatives.

Philippe has signaled that the use of article 49.3 is not imminent, however. Politically, the more obvious it becomes that the opposition is boycotting the parliamentary process, the easier it will be for the government to justify resorting to the “nuclear option.” Moreover, unilaterally imposing the reform could lead to cracks in the ruling Republic on the Move (LRM) party. Philippe will probably try to gain time to allow LRM deputies to debate the reform, which could lead to a revised text that would then be submitted to parliament under article 49.3. Although a significant split within the ruling majority can still not be discarded, the government would still be able to pass the reform with the votes of the centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem) party.

Beyond the fragmentation of the ruling majority, the biggest risk for the government remains the position of the CFDT. The reformist trade union is still in discussions with employers about the financing of the pension system. Ramming the reform through could lead to renewed tensions with its leadership, which could decide to rejoin the protests against the reform. To placate the CFDT, therefore, the government might include some of its demands in the revised bill that could be submitted to parliament under article 49.3.

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