Electoral democracy is, admittedly, inconvenient. For governments, it means having to share power, talk to political opponents with whom they disagree, and ultimately compromise. But such is the objective of most democratic political systems. Because no one can always get everything that they want, representatives of different interests negotiate with each other and try to reach an agreement acceptable to the largest number.
The French president Emmanuel Macron’s decision yesterday (16 March) to override parliament to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 makes a mockery of this principle. After weeks of uncertainty, Élisabeth Borne, Macron’s prime minister, invoked article 49.3 of the constitution, unsure that her minority government had the votes to pass the reform. The article means that a bill automatically becomes law without a vote by MPs, unless the opposition invokes a vote of confidence and the government loses.
Macron is empowered to use the 49.3. Although it is an absurdity that has no place in a modern democracy, it is legal, written into the constitution of the Fifth Republic. But it is a democratic outrage to use the 49.3 to force through a reform this significant, affecting every French citizen. Macron wasn’t sure if he had the votes in parliament, so to ensure that the reform passed he bypassed MPs altogether. Why bother having elections to parliament at all if this is how the government responds to their outcomes?
[See also: Emmanuel Macron is running out of options]
This is not just about the measure itself. One can be for or – as polls show an overwhelming majority of French people are – against it. But it is surely a matter of basic democratic legitimacy that legislation of such significance be approved by the representatives the French people elect to pass laws on their behalf.
The government was acutely aware of this looming crisis of legitimacy. Borne had spent months negotiating with the smaller Republicans party to try to cajole them into voting for the pension reform, conscious of the risks of using the 49.3. Her failure to even go to a vote shows her and her boss to be aloof, isolated and weak.
Even supportive MPs are disappointed with the government. Pascal Lavergne, from Macron’s party, Renaissance, argued that the legislation was too significant to bypass a vote in parliament. There have been protests in the streets, and these are likely to escalate in the coming days. By not offering the National Assembly a single vote on the issue, Macron has signalled to opponents that the only way for them to have their opposition heard is through public demonstration. Some protests will probably turn violent. A spontaneous demonstration at Place de la Concorde in the centre of Paris yesterday evening was dispersed by police with water cannons.
Macron’s decision has precipitated the gravest political crisis of his presidency. If the National Assembly votes no confidence in his government, the country could go to new elections. His party could perform even worse than at last year’s legislative elections, when it lost its majority in parliament. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, buoyed by the chaos, might win even more seats than the 89 it gained last time, already its best result.
With an eye on his legacy as he enters his final years in power, Macron sincerely believes that this reform is necessary for the country. But his reckless disregard for the democratic process means he risks instead being remembered not as the president who reformed France but as the last head of state before the far-right took the Élysée Palace.