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What is Article 49.3 and how often do French politicians use it?

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Ingri Bergo - [email protected]
What is Article 49.3 and how often do French politicians use it?
Protests against the use of Article 49-3 of the constitution by the French government . Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Outrage has greeted Emmanuel Macron's government announcement that it will resort to Article 49.3 to push the highly controversial pension reform through parliament - so what is this power?

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If you're reading French media you're likely to see a lot of headlines about Article 49.3 - or hear discussion of quarante-neuf trois - and if you're not French you're likely wondering what it is and why everyone is so excited about something that sounds very dull and technical.

'Legislative nuclear weapon'

As the name suggests, this is an Article of the French constitution, written into the 1958 version of the constitution.

It's an option for the French government in case of a legislative quagmire, and allows them to pass a bill without parliamentary support, it's sometimes referred to as a “nuclear legislative weapon”.

What is the 49.3?

Article 49.3 can be found in the chapter of the French constitution that regulates the relationship between Parliament and the government.

It states that “the French Prime Minister can, upon discussing with the conseil des ministres (the cabinet) unilaterally pass any bill relating to financial or social security issues without consulting parliament".

The article further states that only a motion of censure signed by at least 10 percent of members (58 MPs) filed within 24 hours can prevent the bill then being adopted.

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Why are we talking about this?

President Emmanuel Macron's government has announced that it will use 49.3 to get their controversial pension reform bill through parliament without a vote.

How unusual is this?

In reality, French governments have not been that reluctant to dust off the old constitutional sword to fight through their own political projects - and in fact Macron's government used it back in 2019 to push through the first part of the pension reform.

Back then, his government had a parliamentary majority, but the project proved so controversial that it required the use of Article 49.3 to get it through parliament. The bill became law in 2020, but was never put into effect because of the pandemic.

And Macron is far from the only French leader to resort to this.

François Hollande in 2009 called the article 49.3 “a brutality” and a “denial of democracy,” but as President he let his own Socialist Party PM Manuel Valls use the article no less than six times between 2015 and 2016.

Before Valls, Alain Juppé used it twice between 1995 and 1996. Jacques Chirac shares the record with Raymond Barre of having turned to article 49.3 all of eight times during his time as Prime Minister in the late 1980s, beating Georges Pompidou’s six times in the 1960s. This list is not exhaustive.

Alain Juppé was just one out of many French prime ministers to make use of article 49.3. Photo: AFP

Does this mean strikes?

The main criticism of Article 49.3 is that it is undemocratic, since it does not allow elected representatives a say on crucial issues.

And if politicians are denied their say in parliament, then the next option for expressing discontent is demonstrations, strikes or both.

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