A messy experiment is in progress this week on the left bank of the river Seine in Paris. It is called parliamentary democracy.
As a result, petrol and diesel prices may be subsidised this autumn more than the government intended – up to 30 centimes a litre, instead of 18 centimes. Opinions may differ on whether that’s a good thing in the week that France burned in a climate-change induced heatwave.
For the first time in nearly 30 years, a French President and a French government are having to calculate, cajole and compromise to get basic business through the National Assembly. A €20 billion package of anti-inflation measures is proceeding, snail-like, through the lower house of parliament where June’s election left President Macron’s allies 39 seats short of an overall majority.
There are 20 articles in the cost-of-living package. After three days, deputies have approved five of them, including a 4 percent increase in pensions and welfare payments. The assembly will have to sit until late on Saturday – in July, no less – to meet its timetable and send the government’s plan, and related budget amendments, to the Sénat next week.
The fact that a quarter of the package has already been agreed suggests that the Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and her government will find a minimum way of governing over the next few months.
But the most contested articles – notably how to reduce the cost of petrol and diesel – have yet to be reached.
The government wants to phase out its existing 18 centimes a litre subsidy on pump prices from October and replace it with direct payments to people who used their cars for work or who have to drive to work. Opposition groups of Right and Left want massive cuts in petrol and diesel taxes for all.
According to leaks to the French media, the government is now working on a compromise with the centre-right Les Républicains (LR)). The centre-right wanted originally to cut VAT to reduce pump prices to €1.50 a litre (while complaining about the state deficit and debt).
The Républicains leadership and the government have provisionally agreed that the existing 18 centimes a litre subsidy should be increased to at least 30 centimes from October and phased out from the New Year. The proposed payments to high-mileage motorists would disappear.
It remains to be seen whether all the 61 centre-right deputies – more than enough to give the government a majority – will go along with this deal. The first couple of weeks of the new assembly have shown that two of the three main opposition groups – the Left and Centre-Right – are themselves much divided.
The government lost a late-night vote on a relatively minor anti-Covid measure last week because some centre-right deputies defied their own leadership and voted against.
The landscape of the new assembly is broadly as follows.
The hard-left La France Insoumise and the Greens oppose almost everything. They shout a great deal and table motions which insult the government. They also complain that the government refuses to work with them.
Their aims are to show off to their core support by: a) opposing Macron at every turn b) defying parliamentary convention.
The rest of the Left – the Socialists and Communists – are calmer. They oppose most of the cost-of-living package as inadequate but abstain, rather than vote against.
The Far Right Rassemblement National is trying to embarrass the government and the Left by seeming serious and constructive. They have opposed most of the package but have voted for some articles and abstained on others.
The government is refusing to negotiate with the Far Right but – to its discomfort – needs them to abstain, at least, on key issues.
The centre-right Les Républicains (LR) are the pivotal group. They are much courted by the government but undisciplined and unreliable. Some of them are closer to the Far Right than to Macron’s Centre.
It is possible that the LR will split in the months ahead but any Macron-compatible centre-right sub-group is likely to fall far short of the 39 extra votes that the government needs.
The cost-of-living package – and maybe even more so the related budget amendments – are an important test of the government’s ability to govern. In her dealings with the assembly so far, the Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has shown herself to be more politically astute than many people had imagined.
The package will survive, somewhat battered, to progress to the upper house next week and return to the assembly for a final vote early next month. But this is the easy part.
Even if they dislike the details, most of the much-splintered opposition does not want to seem to block inflation relief. The assembly is voting, slowly and painfully, this week on something that French people want.
How can the government, without a parliamentary majority, push through the stuff that France does not want? Such as pensions reform.
There is no obvious answer to that question. My bet would still be on a new parliamentary election next year.