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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: France’s PM and her opponents are playing a dangerous game with parliament

The French parliament is looking increasingly chaotic, with repeated use of emergency powers and no-confidence votes. John Lichfield argues that both the government and its opponents are playing a dangerous game with their parliamentary brinkmanship.

OPINION: France's PM and her opponents are playing a dangerous game with parliament
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has repeatedly resorted to her emergency powers and has survived five motions of no confidence. Photo by Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP

The Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has survived five censure motions in the last week. She has used the emergency clause in the constitution – Article 49.3  – to short circuit parliamentary debate on three occasions.

Use of Article 49.3 is, theoretically, a last resort. It will become a weekly event, maybe even bi-weekly, in the next couple of months.

Opposition censure motions will also multiply. Madame Borne will survive them all.

It may seem, to use a British term, “unparliamentary”, to resort to emergency powers so often to prevent the National Assembly from debating and voting. In French terms, it is unusual but perfectly constitutional.

EXPLAINED: What is Article 49.3?

President Charles de Gaulle set up the Fifth Republic constitution to give the President and the executive the power to govern “against” parliament if necessary. He wanted to end the revolving-door governments of the Fourth Republic. In the 1940s and 1950s, France had changed its Prime Ministers almost as frequently as Britain has achieved post-Brexit.

De Gaulle gave the executive the right to force through legislation without a parliamentary vote so long as it “engaged its responsibility” – in other words put its own survival on the line. Deputies could only block the legislation if they tabled and voted for a motion of censure.

A Prime minister who lost would have to resign. The President would appoint another one – or call early parliamentary elections.

All Presidents of the Fifth Republic (ie since 1958) have used this Article 49.3 power at least once. Systematic use has been rare because Presidents have mostly had friendly parliamentary majorities. When presidents faced clearly unfriendly majorities, they had to surrender much of their power to “opposition” prime ministers.

The only previous time when Article 49.3 was used systematically was in 1988-95, when François Mitterrand had a fragile and makeshift parliamentary majority, at best. Since the parliamentary elections last June, President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Borne have had no majority at all. They have 250 of the 577 deputies – 39 short of a majority.

No other bloc in the assembly comes anywhere near a majority either. This is an unprecedented situation in the Fifth Republic, more reminiscent of the Fourth (1945-1958).

The other main blocs – the left alliance, the far-right and the centre-right – COULD bring the government down if they all voted together. That may happen at some point but not yet. All posturing apart, no one wants an early election – not the left, not the far-right, not the centre-right and not Macron.

Borne has been using 49.3 in the last week to push through the first readings of the government’s general and social security budgets for 2023. In other words, she is unable to  ensure the state’s ability to continue spending next year without resorting to her emergency powers.

Initially, the 49.3 power was limitless. Since constitutional changes in 2008, it remains so for all budgetary votes. For other legislation, Article 49, clause 3 can be used only once in each parliamentary year.

The various oppositions say Borne is trampling the right to debate and amend the budget; she says (rightly) they have abused that right by tabling hundreds of motions that they know that she cannot accept (as well as a few that she has).

To everyone’s surprise last week, Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National voted for a censure motion tabled by the Left. This still failed by 50 votes because the centre-right bloc of 62 deputies withheld their support (as everyone knew they would).

There was another left-wing censure motion on Monday. That  failed by 71 votes because some Socialists and Communists stood aside rather than vote with the far-right. Two far-right censure motions failed comprehensively because no one else would vote with them.

Marine Le Pen has been very clever – or she thinks that she has.

By voting “with the Left”, she achieved three things. She was able to pose as the strongest and most determined party of opposition to Macronism. She was able to prise further apart the rifts which had  already appeared in the pan-Left alliance, Nupes.

Most of all, she embarrassed the centre-right Les Républicains, whose “non-votes” kept Borne in power. Le Pen has since been busily painting the Républicains as de facto “allies” of Macron, “Macronists in all but name” etc

This has put the Républicains in an awkward spot. They are in the middle of a leadership election in which the three leading candidates are competing to declare themselves the least “Macron compatible” and best able to rebuild the once powerful centre-right after Macron can no longer stand in 2027.

President Macron has, himself, been trying to widen splits within the centre-right by calling on Les Républicains to enter an “alliance” with his government. In a one-hour TV interview last Wednesday, he emphasised centre-right words like “order” and “security” and “responsibility”.

At the same time, both he and Prime Minister Borne have suggested that early elections will be called if the government loses a future censure vote. At one level, this is a statement of the obvious; at another, it is a warning to the centre-right.

The Républicains, above all, would stand to lose from a snap election. So, probably, would a re-divided Left. Opinion polls suggest that the beneficiaries would be Macron and Le Pen.

What has been happening in the last week,  and will continue until the Christmas recess (and maybe into the New Year) is a a giant game of bluff or political poker. The divided  opposition is ostentatiously opposing; the government is trying to govern and, at the same time, embarrass and divide the opposition.

Does any of it matter very much? In the short-term maybe not; in the medium-term, it is a hazardous game.

There are already signs of tensions within Macron and Borne’s centrist coalition. By appealing for centre-right votes, Macron is angering some of his supporters in the old centre and centre-left.

Few French people are following the parliamentary psycho-drama in detail. Few probably recall the origins of 49.3. Those who already detest Macron are being confirmed in their exaggerated view that he is somehow an illegitimate and anti-democratic leader.

In truth the Opposition, or oppositions, gave Macron and Borne no choice but to use 49.3 to push their budget through. The crisis will arrive if – or when – Macron and Borne use the same emergency power to push through pension reform in the New Year.

A later retirement age than 62 will inevitably be opposed in that other great unelected French parliament –The Street. If Macron and Borne can be represented as riding roughshod over both parliament and protest, France will be in for a deeply troubled start to 2023.

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CRIME

French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

A French court on Thursday found former justice minister Michel Mercier guilty of embezzlement in a fake jobs scheme he ran for the benefit of family members.

French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

Mercier, 75, who served under former president Nicolas Sarkozy between 2010 and 2012, claimed tens of thousands of euros for his wife and daughter for parliamentary jobs  they never carried out.

The court handed him a suspended prison sentence of three years.

Mercier gave “personal gain precedence over the public good”, the court said in its verdict, calling Mercier’s actions “serious”.

As senator, Mercier claimed 50,000 euros ($54,000 at today’s rate) in salary for his wife Joelle between 2005 and 2009, and  €37,000 for his daughter Delphine between 2012 and 2014.

During that time, Delphine Mercier was living in London and did not set foot in the French Senate, but her father claimed she was acting as his “cultural advisor”.

Neither Mercier nor his daughter were able to provide any proof of actual work done.

Joelle Mercier, meanwhile, claimed during the trial that she had served as her husband’s representative at village fairs and funerals.

She was found guilty of conspiracy to embezzle public funds and of receiving stolen money and sentenced to a suspended prison term of 18 months and a €40,000 fine.

The court handed the daughter a 12-month suspended sentence and a fine of €10,000.

Prosecutors had asked for the ex-minister to serve one year behind bars, accusing him of “creating smoke screens” in his defence and seeking to mislead the court.

Mercier had based part of his defence on his rural roots, pitting his “common sense” against the “Parisians” of the national financial crimes unit PNF.

Several French politicians have been convicted for similar offences committed before France in 2017 banned National Assembly deputies and senators from employing family members.

The move came in reaction to a public outcry over a high-profile case involving former right-wing prime minister Francois Fillon, who was found guilty of providing a fake parliamentary assistant job to his wife that saw her paid hundreds of thousands of euros in public funds.

The “Penelopegate” scandal, revealed in a media report while he was the front-runner in the 2017 presidential race, torpedoed  his political career and cleared a path for then-relatively unknown Emmanuel Macron.

Last year, a court trimmed Fillon’s sentence to four years in prison with three suspended — down from five years with three suspended when he was first found guilty in 2020.

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