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

Emmanuel Macron's government has announced that it will resort to Article 49.3 to push its budget through the deadlocked parliament - but what does this mean and is it really the 'nuclear option'?

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

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.

Why are we talking about this?

President Emmanuel Macron’s government has announced that it will use 49.3 to get the budget passed, and Macron also seems determined to press on with his plan to reform the French pension system, despite the subject being highly controversial.

At the parliamentary elections in June, Macron’s party LREM lost its overall majority in parliament, so now faces difficulty getting any legislation passed – even on subjects much less controversial than pension reform. 

The leftist block in parliament made opposition to further pension reform an election issue and there is no indication that they have softened this stance, so it’s hard to see how else the bill could get through the Assemblée nationale without deploying 49.3.

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.

The first part of Macron’s pension reform bill, back in 2019, led to the longest-running transport strikes since 1968 as unions vehemently opposed changes to the pension system, especially the ‘special regimes’ that allow certain professions to retire early.

Throughout December 2019 and January 2020 transport across the country was effectively paralysed as workers walked out, although in the end the reform was passed anyway.

ENERGY

Macron: ‘Don’t panic’ over risk of power cuts in France this winter

French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday called growing fears of winter electricity outages overblown, even as authorities prepare for possible targeted power cuts if consumption is not reduced and cold snaps strain the grid.

Macron: 'Don't panic' over risk of power cuts in France this winter

France’s network is under pressure as state power company EDF races to restart dozens of nuclear reactors taken down for maintenance or safety work that has proved more challenging than originally thought.

Reduced gas exports from Russia as it cuts supplies in retaliation for Western sanctions over the Ukraine war have added to worries that gas-burning power plants might have to trim production.

“Stop it — we’re a major power, we have a great energy system, and we’re going to get through this winter despite the war,” Macron told reporters ahead of an EU/Balkans summit in Tirana, Albania.

“This debate is absurd, the role of the public authorities is not to breed fear,” he added.

OPINION France faces the real risk of power cuts this winter, and it cannot blame Putin

Macron had already urged people “not to panic” over the weekend, saying power cuts could be avoided if overall usage this winter was reduced by 10 percent.

But last week the government told local officials to begin preparing contingency plans in case targeted cuts were needed, possibly including closing schools until midday.

France is usually one of Europe’s largest electricity exporters thanks to its network of 56 nuclear reactors, which supply around 70 percent of its electricity needs.

But this winter it will be a major importer of power from Britain, Germany, Spain and other neighbouring countries, grid operator RTE said last week.

READ ALSO Schools, hospitals and trains – how France plans to deal with blackouts this winter

RTE’s chief Xavier Piechaczyk told Franceinfo radio that the risk of power cuts could not be excluded, “but it will essentially depend on the weather.”

Normally France’s 56 nuclear reactors can produce 61 gigawatts but with around half of the fleet offline, just 43 gigawatts are expected to be available by the end-January, he said.

And while France has the capacity to import up to 15 gigawatts, winter usage can surge to 90 gigawatts at peak hours, prompting the calls for energy “restraint” such as lowering thermostats and using washing machines and other appliances at night.

“Rule number one is that nothing is inevitable… Together we have the capacity to avoid any risk of cuts, no matter how the winter turns out,” government spokesman Olivier Veran told France 2 television on Tuesday.

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