Three months after the massive strike movement protesting the proposed pension reform kicked off on December 5th, the French government this weekend took the drastic decision to force the bill through the parliament without allowing MPs to continue debating it – using a tool known as Article 49.3.
In a surprise move on Saturday afternoon, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said that, “in accordance with the article 49.3 in the Constitution,” he had decided to “leave the responsibility of the bill” on the government’s shoulders.
The government, Philippe said, had decided to carry through their pension reform plan without putting the project to a vote in Parliament. This was decided after opposition MPs filed dozens of amendments to the bill in an attempt to stall its progress.
— LCP (@LCP) February 29, 2020
'Legislative nuclear weapon'
In case of legislative quagmire, the French government may turn to a constitutional weapon – sometimes referred to as a “nuclear legislative weapon” – and pass a bill without parliamentary support.
This weapon is better known as article 49.3 (quarante-neuf trois), written into the 1958 French constitution.
This is the article 49.3, which the government can use to force through a bill without parliamentary support. Photo: AFP
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.
This time, the opposition has filed two such motions of censure. The right wing Les Républicains filed one and left wing La France Insoumise (LFI), Parti Socialiste (PS) and PCF filed another as a group.
If either group manages to get their motion passed (which is unlikely considering the government's majority) the government then has to step down.
So what will happen?
Most likely, the pension reform will be adopted as it stands, including some 300 opposition amendments that the government has taken into consideration.
The PM also said that some of the points that had been negotiated together with the unions would be included in the final text.
Far-left party La France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Melenchon called for people to take to the streets to protest the government's decision to use the 49.3 to push through the pension reform. Photo: AFP
Why use it now?
The government has been eager to pass the pension reform before Parliament suspends all work in the run-up to the municipal elections on March 15th and March 22nd.
Their attempt to rush the plan through Parliament was severely and deliberately delayed by the opposition, with MPs depositing thousands of amendments to slow down the hearings.
PM Philippe said he would not allow for such a “a deliberate filibuster strategy” and wanted to “end this episode of non-debate.”
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.
Francois 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.
Upon hearing the PM's speech on Saturday, hardline union CGT leader Philippe Martinez denounced what he said was “scandalous” behaviour from the ruling party and called for a new round of national walk-outs this week.
On Monday, several unions – the CGT, Force ouvrière, CFE-CGC and FSU – called for another day of national action on Tuesday March 3rd, with strikes and protests all over the country.
Exactly how much impact this will have though remains unclear.
The number of people showing up to the strikes has dwindled since its peak period of mid-December and organised 'protest days' in late January resulted in no significant disruption to rail or public transport services.
The biggest union CFDT has so far not said it would join Tuesday's mobilisations.