Why has the French government used Article 49.3 and does it mean more strikes?

The long-running dispute over planned changes to the French pension system has taken a new twist as the government decided to use Article 49.3 - but what is that and does it mean more strikes?

Why has the French government used Article 49.3 and does it mean more strikes?
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced that the government would push the pension reform plan through without Parliament's support on Saturday afternoon. Photo: AFP

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. 

READ ALSO French government unveils pension reform bill – so what is in it?

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.


'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.

EXPLAINED What are France's special pensions regimes and why are people striking to protect them?

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.

Alain Juppé was just one out of many French prime ministers to make use of article 49.3. Photo: AFP
Does this a new round of strikes?

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.

READ ALSO: 1.4 million reimbursed SNCF train tickets – the numbers that tell the story of the strikes in France


OPINION: If France is to belong in a multicultural world it must accept its Muslim women

It's another hot summer in France and there's another predictable uproar over the Burkini. If France wants to take its place in a multicultural world then it must make room for all its citizens, writes civil liberties expert Rim-Sarah Alouane.

OPINION: If France is to belong in a multicultural world it must accept its Muslim women

France’s compulsive obsession with the behaviour and dress of its Muslim citizens has taken on worrying proportions, and has turned over the years into a form of mass hysteria. The “burkini affair” is one of many examples.

The burkini is a two-piece full body swimsuit with sleeves, long legs and a headgear. This type of swimming-suit made of Lycra® leaves the face, feet and hands uncovered. It was invented in 2003 by Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, who wanted to develop sporting attire for Muslim women that would allow them to take part in sports activities while accommodating their religious beliefs. While the burkini was first designed for Muslim women, it has also been adopted by many non-Muslim women who wish to cover their bodies for various reasons.

The controversy escalated in 2016, when the French Council of State – France’s highest administrative court – overturned a series of local initiatives to ban the use of burkinis on public beaches. These bans were implemented in an atmosphere of increasing anti-Muslim sentiment by local officials who argued that such attire disturbed the public order. The Council saw no such disturbance and argued that it was an infringement on constitutionally protected civil liberties. This, however, did not end the controversy.

READ ALSO: Why is France’s interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

In response, the political establishment from across the political spectrum tried to find legal loopholes to circumvent the ruling, turning their attention to municipal swimming pools where they could modify the rules governing public services.

A recent controversy involved the Green Party Mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, who authorized the wearing of the burkini (as well as topless swimsuits) in municipal swimming pools, triggering an avalanche of criticism. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused Mr Piolle of entertaining “communitarian provocation” and that authorizing the wearing of the burkini in public swimming pools was contrary to France’s values. Once again, French Muslim women found themselves stigmatised and targeted.

They were accused of being a conduit for Islamist extremism, separatism, patriarchy, and violating the principle of laïcité. This discourse, like so much before it, happened without inviting Muslim women themselves to be a part of the conversation.

Modern interpretations of Laïcité – France’s unique way of managing church-state relations – have become an ideological tool for political identity, a factor of division, and the exclusion of French Muslims from the societies in which they live. How did we get here?

The meaning of the term “laïcité” has become obscured by the fact that its interpretations are diverse and sometimes contradictory.

Its current usage betrays the very liberal intention of the 1905 law on “Separation of Church and State”, the ruling which forms the foundation of the principle. 

Laïcité once defined the territories in which the State is sovereign and religious belief is left at the door. It generates obligations for the state to remain neutral and guarantee the religious freedom and freedom of conscience of its citizens, within the limits of public order.

A significant misinterpretation of the 1905 law persists to this day. The law does not require religious belief or visible signs thereof to be kept in the home. However, politicians and pundits on a daily basis cite the law in their efforts to erase any religious visibility (especially Islam) in the public square.

Any attempt to show visible attributes of faith outside the home are deemed to be a threat to a commonly-held belief that France’s citizens should conform to an imaginary notion of what it means to be French. This very illiberal interpretation of laïcité and religious neutrality goes against the essence of the Law of 1905.

As France continues to mature as a country made up of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, vulnerable communities have begun to advocate for their rights to be treated as equals with their fellow French citizens without giving up their personal beliefs and customs.

Critics of the clothing choices of Muslim women have forgotten the fundamental freedoms of the Declaration of  the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, often seeking to free Muslim women from their religion. Even when Muslim women dare to defend their basic rights, they are often accused of being radicalised.

A good Muslim woman is a quiet invisible woman. The irony is that many Muslim women who wear their burkinis to swimming pools or wear headscarves during sports competitions actually go against rigorous interpretations of Islam. In order to justify burkini bans, politicians or commentators will often point to Muslim-majority countries who have similar prohibitions, as if authoritarian states were a role model for France to follow.

Muslim women are perceived as a threat because they shake France’s status quo. The illusion of France being a colour-blind nation has been broken. If France really believes that multicultural communities threaten the character of the country, it must not believe that its culture – one that the entire world looks up to – is actually that strong.

But if France is to take its place in a multicultural world, it needs to come to terms with how vulnerable communities fit within the notion of French identity and make room for all its citizens.

Rim-Sarah Alouane is a doctoral candidate and a researcher in comparative law at the University Toulouse Capitole in France. Her research focuses on civil liberties, constitutional law, and human rights in Europe and North America. She tweets @rimsarah