When Charles De Gaulle introduced France’s Fifth Republic in 1958, he spoke of the need for a “national referee” who would “exist above political quarrels”. The result was the creation of the most powerful presidency in the democratic world, entrusted with a litany of authoritarian powers and largely unconstrained by a marginalised parliament.
It is one of those autocratic powers that has sparked the gravest political crisis of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. On 16 March, lacking a majority in parliament, Macron invoked article 49.3 of the Fifth Republic’s constitution, which empowers the government to force through laws without a vote in parliament, in order to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The decision has backfired. On 23 March a million people across the country marched in protest, both at the reform and the way it was passed. Demonstrations are increasingly turning violent: in Bordeaux protesters set fire to the city hall, while in Paris small groups fought with police. A planned visit by King Charles was postponed, probably because the president’s advisers were worried about how Macron meeting a monarch in the Palace of Versailles would look.
Macron’s office may be powerful, but without a majority of MPs and facing demonstrators determined to force him to back down he appears increasingly isolated. Even allies are fiercely critical. With four years of his term left, can he recover from this crisis?
Macron’s fundamental problem is that his party, Renaissance, lacks a parliamentary majority. This is unusual for French presidents, who for the past 20 years have always governed with a majority and treated parliament as an afterthought. Over Macron’s first term, between 2017 and 2022, the National Assembly was rarely an obstacle for his agenda. Since Macron lost his majority last year it has been far more willing to stand up to the executive. On 20 March a confidence vote, triggered by the use of article 49.3, came within nine votes of forcing Élisabeth Borne, Macron’s prime minister, to resign.
In a televised interview on 22 March, Macron said that he had instructed Borne to “increase” the number of pro-government MPs. She will most likely seek out alliances with the centre-right Republicans. Yet an official coalition pact with the 40 or so Republican MPs is likely to alienate MPs on the left of the ruling party, who could themselves defect, meaning the government could continue to command the support of only a minority.
Without a reliable majority of MPs, Macron’s first option for the remainder of his term will be negotiating on every bill for the support of smaller parties. Yet his fractious negotiations with the Republicans, whose party platform in the 2022 presidential election included raising the retirement age to 65 and thus should have been favourable to the reform, suggests that other parties may be unreliable partners for him.
Macron could continue to invoke article 49.3 to pass legislation without a vote (although he can constitutionally only use the measure once a parliamentary session on most bills). Yet this option is likely to inflame tensions on the street. Many French people would view Macron as an unpopular president using authoritarian powers to force through unwanted measures. More importantly, the vote of confidence on 20 March fell short by just nine votes. Another such vote after using the article could well succeed, toppling the prime minister. That wouldn’t necessarily precipitate new elections, but it would further damage the president’s authority and ability to implement his programme.
A final option would be for Macron to dissolve parliament and call new elections. This would probably end with him and his party in an even weaker position, however. The left-wing Nupes alliance and far-right National Rally, both arch-critics of the government, would stand to benefit. Macron could be forced to appoint a prime minister from a different party, a so-called cohabitation. He would be, in effect, left in office but not in power, unable to implement much of his policy agenda. More likely, there would be no clear majority of MPs of any political persuasion, meaning nothing much would get done.
The beneficiaries of the chaos are likely to be the extremes on both ends of the political spectrum. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Nupes leader, is the most vocal critic of retirement reform and offers a clear alternative to Macron’s technocratic liberalism. Marine Le Pen, of the National Rally, argues that the French have been disappointed in turn by the left, the right and now the centrists. Why not give her far right a chance? She has stayed above the fray, endorsing neither Macron’s methods nor violence in the streets, implicitly contrasting herself with the president’s authoritarianism and the far left’s radicalism.
If Macron concludes that he is at an impasse, one way out could be for him to give up on the Fifth Republic and its quasi-monarchical presidency completely. Critics of France’s institutions have called for decades for the creation of a Sixth Republic, possibly taking the form of a parliamentary system. In his manifesto for the 2022 election, Mélenchon proposed putting parliament “at the centre of political life”. Procedures such as article 49.3 that allow the executive to “trample on the elected representatives of the people” would be abolished.
Could Macron get behind such a radical proposal? “A Sixth Republic is an idea on a Macronian scale,” Simon Kuper wrote in a recent piece in the Financial Times. Macron is in his last term. Facing political paralysis and without an heir apparent for his political movement, with the institutions of the Fifth Republic straining, a grand push for massive reform might be the best chance to secure his legacy. The alternative is risking being remembered not as an ambitious reformer but as the president who handed over power to the far right.
This article was originally published on 24 March 2023.
[See also: The French right can’t quit Russia]