OPINION: Macron, the government and France itself all lose from the pensions debacle

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Macron, the government and France itself all lose from the pensions debacle
Burning barriers during a demonstration on Place de la Concorde, after the French government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote. Photo by Alain JOCARD / AFP

After a tumultuous 24 hours in the French parliament and on the streets, John Lichfield looks at what happens next for Emmanuel Macron, for his embattled prime minister and for the strike-weary country.


Emmanuel Macron likes to take risks. To insist on a hated but necessary pension reform at a time of crisis abroad and dissension at home was, from the beginning, a calculated risk.  

On Thursday afternoon afternoon the President found himself confronted, like one of the priggish heroes of classic French tragedy, with a choice between two great risks. 

He could allow the pension reform to go to a vote in the National Assembly which he would probably lose – with potentially calamitous results for France's standing in world financial markets.

Or he could impose the reform by the special powers given to French governments under Article 49.3 of the constitution. Three of his most senior ministers pleaded with him not to do so, according to Le Monde. They warned of a conflagration of popular anger which might eclipse the worst moments of the Gilets Jaunes movement in 2018-9.


Better, they said, to lose the vote democratically and move on with the remaining four years of his second term. But move on to what?

Pension reform, Macron had edicted last year, was the key to all other reforms: a first, indispensable step towards taming budget deficits and increasing France's capacity to generate wealth for all.

The riots overnight in Paris and several other French cities suggest that the ministers were right to warn of the dark public mood.

There had been an atmosphere of public insurrection for several days, with militant union branches cutting off power to whole neighbourhoods of provincial towns, including, in two cases, hospitals. Mountains of uncollected rubbish had piled up in |Paris, providing ready-made bonfires for Thursday night's rioters.

It is important, however, to look at who last night's rioters were. They were mostly the young, black clad, self-pleased urban, middle-class, anti-system revolutionaries who attach themselves to all street protests in France. It is difficult to believe that they were sincerely outraged by the possibility that they might have to work until they are 64 instead of 62.

Unlike the Yellow Vest movement, this was not – or not yet – a spontaneous outbreak of genuine popular anger. It remains to be seen what happens on the following nights.

It also remains to be seen how much support there will be for the ninth union “day of action” against pension reform and Article 49.3 which has been called next Thursday. Opposition to a later retirement age is deep and sincere in France but there is also much strike fatigue after two months of on-off protests.

Is this the beginning of a new May 1968 or July 1789? I doubt it.

Pension reform can still be stopped if a majority of the National Assembly votes for a motion to censure the government. The Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and her government would then also be forced to resign.

A censure motion must attract an absolute majority of votes – 287. To succeed, it would need the support of around 40 of the 61 centre-right Les Républicains (LR) deputies.  

Since a successful censure vote might force an early parliamentary election which would devastate the centre-right, that seems highly improbable.


Macron and Borne had hoped for – and been promised on several occasions – the backing of at least 35 of the LR deputies in yesterday’s vote on pension reform. When it came to the final muster, the LR leadership – which had supported and largely shaped the legislation – could guarantee only 28.

It was that bleak news, in a phone call to Borne from LR leaders, that persuaded Macron to impose the law by means of Article  49.3. He waited until ten minutes before the Assembly vote was due to start in the desperate hope that the votes could be found.

Why such a fuss, you might ask, about the fact that Macron has used a constitutional weapon thoughtfully provided by President Charles de Gaulle 65 years ago? Article 49.3 has been used 100 times since then by all presidents and by governments of all persuasions – including ten times by Elisabeth Borne to unblock the 2023 state budget last autumn and winter.

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

There is a difference – as Macron knew, hence his dilemma yesterday – between using A.49.3 to keep the state machinery going and using it to impose a pension reform which is opposed by 70 percent of French adults.

Beyond that, there has been a “hystericizing” of all politics in France since the old left-right system fell apart (something Macron himself encouraged and benefited from).  There has been a hsytericizing of the use of Article 49.3 (which is perfectly legal after all).


There has especially been a hystericizing of the pensions’ debate. It is reasonable and respectable to question the need for this reform and the need for it to happen now. It is not reasonable or respectable to describe it as “brutal” and “violent” as the unions and opposition have done.

If the reform goes ahead – as it almost certainly will – French people will still have a lower official retirement age in 2030 than most European countries do already.

The perennial losses of the supposedly self-financing pension system are a serious burden on French state finances. When Macron referred to his fear of the reaction of world financial markets, as he did on Thursday, this is treated in the French media as a kind of “gotcha” moment. “See, this was all about pleasing the  bankers.”

Reality checkpoint. A country whose accumulated debt amounts to 114 percent of its national annual income – and a country which has not balanced its state budget for half a century – cannot afford to annoy its bankers too much for too long.

No one emerges from the pension saga with credit. Macron has been largely absent from an argument which he started. Elisabeth Borne has presented a complicated plan in a muddled and unconvincing way.

The Left has been hysterical. The Far Right has smiled smugly, hoping to profit but contributing nothing sensible.

The centre-right, remnant of the great Gaullist movement, have demanded and promised much but their lies, selfishness and internal quarrels led the government into an elephant trap. They appear, more than ever, doomed as a serious political movement.

All are to blame but only one person will pay with her job.


Elisabeth Borne will survive the censure motion but she will be replaced by Macron within a month or so. It is an iron rule of French politics that the PM suffers for failure, not the President.

A new prime minister will be appointed to deliver the rest of Macron’s agenda. Good luck with that.

Pension reform was supposed to be the key to other reforms but the manner in which it was achieved will make any other reform or initiatives hard to deliver.

And the French will still have to work a little longer, whether they like it or not.

It is lose-lose all round.


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also