Macron’s gamble on pensions reform

Against widespread opposition, the French President has pushed through his signature reform of the French pensions system. Yet, argues Giovanni Capoccia, the fight is not over. The stakes remain high – and not just for France

Last Monday, the French government’s pension reform bill officially cleared parliament. But the National Assembly did not vote on it. Instead, the government resorted to a constitutional procedure that allows it to pass legislation without a vote unless a no-confidence motion is presented within 24 hours and approved by a majority of MPs.

Two no-confidence motions were voted on, and defeated. On Wednesday, President Macron gave a televised interview. He acknowledged the legitimacy of the peaceful demonstrations against the reform and the parliamentary opposition to it. But he continued to reassert the legitimacy of the procedure adopted.

Emmanuel Macron maintains that even after his reforms, the French pension system will remain among the most generous in Europe

Macron confirmed that he expects the reform, once the Constitutional Council rules on some procedural issues, to come into force within the year, as originally planned. In addition, he remarked that even after the reform – which gradually increases the legal minimum pension age from 62 to 64 and the minimum number of annuities required to receive a full pension from 41 to 43 – the French pension system would still be among the most generous in Europe.

A difficult process

Despite Macron’s intention to treat this issue as 'business as usual', the fight on pension reform is not over. It leaves the President politically weaker.

Monday's showdown in the National Assembly was preceded by several weeks of heated parliamentary debates and large-scale mobilisation against the reform. In Parliament, where Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne only has the support of a plurality of MPs, the government and the oppositions resorted to all possible parliamentary tactics to get their way. Polls report that 60 to 70% of the electorate oppose the reform. A similar percentage found Macron’s televised interview 'unconvincing'. Macron’s personal popularity has continued to decline, and now languishes at 28%. Only 9 votes defeated one of the two no-confidence motions. This went against the expectation that a much larger margin would vote it down. On Thursday, strikes and demonstrations once again swept across France.

After investing so much in pension reform, withdrawing it now would cripple Macron's authority for the rest of his term

In fact, Macron’s decision to resist pressure is likely less a choice than a political necessity. After investing so much in the reform, withdrawing it would cripple his authority for the rest of his term. Dissolving the National Assembly would not give him a parliamentary majority. A referendum on the bill would probably spell defeat. And replacing the Prime Minister or reshuffling the government without enlarging its parliamentary base – now more difficult than ever – would not change much.

Le Pen’s slow advance

The radical-left coalition Nupes was particularly vocal against the reform, leading the protests alongside the unions. By contrast, the radical-right Rassemblement National (RN), while formally supporting the demonstrations and criticising the reform, made careful efforts to not become too exposed politically. RN’s tactic seems to have paid off – for the moment. A recent poll recorded a slight increase (+3.3%) in vote share, while the shares of all other main political forces show a slight decrease.

By avoiding outright condemnation of the reforms, RN shored up its image as a 'party of government'. Marine Le Pen has pursued this communication strategy for a few years. And, since the last elections returned an unprecedented 89 MPs to her party, she has intensified it. At the same time, Le Pen has capitalised on the widespread opposition to Macron's reform. For example, she pledged that if she became President, she would simply abrogate it.

The debacle of the moderate right

More importantly, the clashes over pension reform have helped Le Pen gain ground in her longstanding struggle with the moderate right.

Much attention in the reform debate focused on moderate-right Les Républicains (LR). After a disappointing result (4%) in the presidential elections, LR seemed to have demonstrated resilience by winning 11.3% and 64 seats in the legislative elections two months later. This result gave LR a potentially decisive role in the new parliament. With a government short of a majority – and facing two determined radical oppositions on its right and left – LR could provide a majority for the government, and gain a lot in exchange.

LR refused to enter a formal government coalition. However, on the issue of pensions reform, the party leadership has repeatedly expressed support for key parts of the legislation. New party leader Eric Ciotti, elected last December, reiterated this position. Many thus thought it possible that the reform bill would find a majority in the National Assembly.

Clashes over pension reform have helped Marine Le Pen gain ground in her longstanding struggle with the moderate right

Yet, several MPs from LR wavered. This was a crucial factor in inducing the government to avoid a parliamentary vote. Even on the no-confidence votes, the party leadership failed to discipline its MPs. Defeated leadership contenders including Aurélien Pradier used dissenting over the reform as an opportunity to increase their influence. And Le Pen – via RN President Jordan Bardella – promised to any LR parliamentarian who would support a no-confidence motion that, should the President call early elections, RN would not run with its own candidate in their districts – de facto assuring their re-election.

Thus, although Ciotti publicly declared that LR would not support any no-confidence motion, nineteen of his MPs did. Their defection had three consequences. First, their vote was decisive in transforming a numerical victory for Borne’s government into a political defeat. Second, the party is now in deep crisis. And finally, the threadbare cordon sanitaire dividing the moderate and radical right has now all but dissolved.

High stakes

The next phase of this political struggle will likely transcend the issue of pension reform and involve Macron's democratic legitimacy. At a time when the German government is paralysed by internal vetoes, the European radical right is working at a coalition with the European Popular Party on a programme of slowing down EU integration; and anti-integration forces show no signs of abating. If EU integration-champion Macron loses his gamble, the consequences are likely to be felt beyond France’s borders.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Giovanni Capoccia
Giovanni Capoccia
Professor of Comparative Politics, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford

Giovanni's research interests include democracy and political extremism, democratic backsliding, and European politics.

He is currently preparing a co-edited volume on how illiberalism and backsliding can be countered in liberal democracies.

He tweets @gcapoccia1

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