BERLIN – After Emmanuel Macron’s party lost its majority in parliament in legislative elections this year, observers of French politics predicted a more factitious second term for the president.
This new political reality is now beginning to take shape. Élisabeth Borne, Macron’s prime minister, invoked a controversial article of the French constitution three times over the course of a week in mid-October to pass contentious budget legislation without a vote, outraging opposition parties. Macron, just months into his second term, is now scrambling to pass his agenda with a newly empowered legislature in which his party holds just 245 seats, 44 short of a majority.
During October debates on the financing of France’s social security system Borne invoked the third provision of article 49 of the constitution – the so-called 49.3 – which allows the government to pass laws without a vote. The opposition can, in return, propose motions of no confidence in the executive. Under the French system a vote of no confidence would topple the government, led by Borne, but not the president, who benefits from his own mandate. Yet Macron’s authority would be severely weakened.
The 49.3 is a feature of the Fifth Republic constitution, which created one of the most powerful executives of any Western democracy, in line with the postwar president Charles De Gaulle’s political philosophy. The article has been used dozens of times, although more rarely in the 21st century. The government can fail in its use of the 49.3 if it loses the subsequent confidence vote, but only one government has ever fallen in a confidence motion under the current constitution.
Use of the 49.3 was curtailed by a 2008 constitutional reform, which allowed its use only once per parliamentary session, apart from on budgetary bills. It is this budget provision that the Borne government has exploited.
Opposition leaders have criticised the government for invoking the 49.3. Fabien Roussel, leader of the Communist Party, called its use as “a denial of democracy” on 19 October, while Éric Coquerel of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left France Unbowed party described it as “an antidemocratic power grab coupled with contempt”.
Lisa Thomas-Darbois, a researcher at the Montaigne Institute think tank, told me: “The use of the 49.3 is an illustration of the new political reality after this year’s legislative elections. It shows the complexity of ruling without a majority, which is severely limiting the government’s power and room for manoeuvre. The fact that the government can only use the 49.3 once for normal bills will mean it is going to have to search for consensus and be willing to make compromises.”
Two motions of no confidence were proposed by the opposition in response to Borne’s moves. One was supported by the National Rally, Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, while the other was proposed by the Nupes, an alliance of left-wing parties. Both factions initially claimed that they would not support the other’s motion. However, in a spectacular political coup, Le Pen announced that she would support the left-wing alliance’s motion.
With the aid of the National Rally, the Nupes motion gained 239 votes, 50 short of a majority (MPs from the centre-right Republicans party, also in opposition, refused to back it). Le Pen’s support for the motion was viewed as a political trap for the Republican MPs. Le Pen used the vote to signal to voters on the hard right that the Republicans are serving as Macron’s “life jacket”, in the words of one political commentator, by refusing to topple his government when they had the chance. “This has the merit of showing that the Republican party is closer to the government than the opposition,” Le Pen told journalists after the vote on 24 October.
Supporting the Nupes motion also benefits the National Rally’s strategy of presenting itself as a respectable, mainstream party as it seeks to eventually win power on a national level. “This shows that we are not sectarian, that our only guide is the interests of France and the French people,” Le Pen said. At the next presidential election in 2027 the vote might be used by Le Pen to appeal to supporters of Mélenchon. “If she again makes the second round in five years, she will be able to recall this vote,” the researcher Bruno Cautrès told FranceInfo.
Macron has proposed various solutions in response to his government’s difficulties. Some of the options suggested aim to marginalise parliament, such as threatening to dissolve the National Assembly if the government were to be defeated in a confidence motion. He appeared to backtrack on this in an interview on France 2 on 26 October, however, conscious that early elections would probably benefit the far right and would be unlikely to give his party a majority. In the same interview he raised the possibility of “asking the people their opinion” by calling referendums to bypass parliamentary deadlock.
But Macron spent much of the interview trying to show that he was open to working with other parties to gain a working majority in parliament, particularly with regards to non-budgetary bills on which the government will not be able to have unlimited recourse to the 49.3. With regard to the Republicans and a smaller centrist faction, the president said, “I am in favour of an alliance,” citing efforts to reform the labour market, raise the pension age and toughen immigration rules — all subjects favoured by the right. An Ifop poll published on 27 October showed that 85 per cent of voters for Macron’s party and 63 per cent of Republican backers supported an alliance between the two.
Macron faces a parliament less acquiescent to the executive than at any point for at least 20 years. It is still not clear whether the French electorate will get the more compromise-driven parliamentary politics the June election results suggest they wanted. They could still get its opposite: a more antagonistic relationship between the executive and the legislature, with a president more willing to bypass parliament when it suits him.