Macron enraged France with his pension bill. But few think he’ll be forced out

Protesters participate in a demonstration against the French government’s plan to raise the legal retirement age in Paris, on March 16, 2023.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | GettyImages

A coalition of French lawmakers on Friday filed a no confidence motion against President Emmanuel Macron following chaotic scenes in the country’s lower house of parliament the day before.

Despite frantic last-minute negotiations and number-crunching, Macron calculated he did not have enough votes in the National Assembly to pass his controversial and long-standing plan to raise the retirement age.

So he resorted to the back-up plan that many — including within his party — opposed; using a special constitutional power to force it through without a parliamentary majority.

The measure, which means the national retirement age will go from 62 to 64 for most workers, was announced by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who was met with chants, jeers and boos from lawmakers.

The reaction was fierce. Union CFDT called it a “true denial of democracy” and called on local unions to rally over the weekend, and for a big day of strikes and protest action on March 23.

Around 7,000 people gathered to protest on the Place de la Concorde in Paris on Thursday evening, Reuters reported, where police used tear gas and charged it at protesters.

A coalition of left-wing lawmakers filed one no confidence motion, which is being backed by leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Another has been filed by the far-right National Rally party of Marine Le Pen, now led by Jordan Bardella, who has said he will vote in favor of any no-confidence motion.

Members of parliament of the left hold placards and sing the Marseillaise, French national anthem, as French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne arrives to deliver a speech on pensions reform bill at the National Assembly in Paris, France, March 16, 2023.

Pascal Rossignol | Reuters

Macron, Borne and their Renaissance party, formerly En Marche, are expected to make it through the vote.

Julien Hoez, a political consultant who has worked with the Renaissance party, says the motion of no confidence will struggle to get the required majority of 287 votes. That’s with Mélenchon’s left-wing La France Insoumise, Le Pen’s National Rally, green party Europe Ecology, and others opposed to Macron’s bill — potentially also including members of the center-right establishment party Les Républicains. Hoez noted it will be tight, and it’s possible Borne could step down.

The strength of feeling against the deployment of the special constitutional measure should not be underestimated, he told CNBC by phone.

“With the budget it was understandable and acceptable because you need the budget to keep the country running, it made it an easier pill to swallow,” Hoez said.

“Something as important as this needed to be done differently in order to make things work. People think this is undemocratic.”

A protester sits on top of a lamp post with a placard that reads “Macron at the service of Black Rock, Black Block at the service of the people” as demonstrators light fires at Place de la Concorde in protest to the French Government pushing its pension bill through France’s Parliament without a vote after enacting Article 49.3 of the constitution, on March 16, 2023 in Paris, France.

Kiran Ridley | Getty Images News | GettyImages

While Macron was re-elected in 2022, things don’t look good for next year’s European elections, he said, and at home Renaissance will increasingly be pushed into a corner between the left and right and the controversy will hinder its ability to pass other measures.

Some opposition to the raising of the retirement age centers on how it will negatively impact women, public sector workers and people on lower pay who begin working earlier.

For many on the left, the government’s argument that change is needed to ensure the pension system’s longevity and reduce its annual deficit of 10 billion euros ($10.73 billion) is a case of priorities, particularly given its policies such as tax breaks benefiting the ultra- wealthy and businesses.

National Rally’s Marine Le Pen, who Macron beat to the top job in 2022, has also positioned herself against the reforms which she has called an unfair burden on the people — and some analysts say the measure may boost her popularity.

What if?

If the no confidence vote does pass, the government will be forced to resign for the first time since 1962.

Macron could then either appoint a new government with a new prime minister or dissolve parliament, triggering new elections.

Holger Schmieding, chief economist at German investment bank Berenberg, said French governments usually won votes of no confidence and he expected it to do so this time, resulting in the automatic enacting of the pension reform.

If it doesn’t, however, “new elections for parliament could go against the alliance of parties backing Macron,” Schmieding said in a note.

“If so, that could turn him into a lame duck for domestic policies for the remainder of his term until 2027.”

Macron has already weakened his position, Schmieding added, and a new parliament would likely be deeply divided with no majority.

However, he noted, Berenberg analysts “remain optimistic that France could largely remain what it seems to be at the moment: the most dynamic of the major European economies.”

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct name for the leader of the National Rally party.

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