Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced on 29 February that he would make use of Article 49.3 of the French constitution to ram pension reform through parliament. While Philippe’s decision might create additional cracks inside the ruling Republic on the Move (LREM) party of President Emmanuel Macron, it is unlikely that it will make much difference for the overall political outlook. Rather, the key signpost to watch is the position of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), which will determine whether the demonstrations against the proposed policy changes regain serious momentum.
It is unclear what motivated Philippe to resort to the “nuclear option” earlier than stated. A potential explanation is that the shift in the news cycle caused by the coronavirus allows the government to credibly justify its need to end the stalemate in parliament to focus on more pressing matters. It is also possible that with the first round of the local elections taking place on 15 March, Philippe wanted to prevent the issue from “polluting” the campaign just days before the vote.
The opposition has reacted quickly to Philippe’s decision by filing two no-confidence motions under the procedure established in Article 49.3. However, none of the two motions has a realistic chance of being approved when they are debated today, 3 March. As a result, the National Assembly (France’s lower chamber) will this evening approve in the first reading the main pension reform bill (a shorter complementary bill still needs to be discussed in parliament), after which it will be sent to the Senate (France’s upper chamber). Given that the upper chamber is in the hands of the center-right The Republicans (LR) party, it is likely that the reform will be substantially amended. But the National Assembly will have the last word when the Senate sends the bill back in May, which means that the reform could be approved by the summer as wanted by Macron.
As previously explained, the activation of Article 49.3 might potentially lead to further defections in Macron’s party (two MPs and a senator have left the party since the announcement). However, the government will include many of the amendments proposed by LREM deputies in the bill to be approved today to limit the potential for additional internal dissent. And even if Macron were to lose a substantial number of MPs down the line (LREM still holds 298 deputies, nine above the absolute majority threshold), he would still be able to pass legislation with the support of the Democratic Movement (MoDem) party.
Moreover, the potential negative impact of Philippe’s decision on LREM’s chances in the upcoming local elections should not be overstated. Macron’s party was already expected to have a hard time making serious inroads on the local level, given the incumbency advantage of established parties and LREM’s lack of established local networks. Therefore, it is unlikely that the municipal elections will provide a good gauge of the pension reform’s effect on Macron’s standing.
Looking beyond the next two weeks, the key factor to watch is still the position of the CFDT. The reformist trade union is still negotiating with employers a deal on how to correct the deficit of the pension system. If no agreement is reached, the government will impose its own solution. Such a scenario could lead the CFDT to join the protests against the reform, which would increase their intensity as a result.