Pensions and 49.3: the need to unite in the absence of an absolute majority, by Emmanuel Rivière

Retreats and 493 the longest day fools game atomic weapon

The French have a limited knowledge of the Assembly and its functioning, but there is an article of the Constitution, article 49 and its paragraph 3, which they know by reputation, which is not good. It is for them synonymous with a passage in force. The executive knows this, which is why it has done everything to avoid using it for pension reform, highlighting as rarely its determination to find a majority, and the acknowledgment of its failure. The account was not there, as Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne declared to the TF1 newscast.

The account was not there either on June 19, in the second round of the legislative elections which deprived the re-elected president of an absolute majority, and the current situation is of course the consequence of this result, but also the culmination of this hazardous experimentation of starting a legislature without a constituted majority. This adventure was well received by the French, who saw in this composite Assembly the promise of a more consensual management of the country. This situation was none the less singular. A divided National Assembly where no force alone has a majority is not exceptional, it is the common lot in the European political space. However, everywhere else in Europe, this situation opens a sequence which consists in seeking a majority, more or less solid and durable, but which allows at least to start. This sometimes proves impossible, leading to the calling of new elections. In some cases, on the contrary, several solutions present themselves, as is often the case in Germany.

In France, there was only one possible majority at the end of the June 2022 legislative elections: that constituted by the addition of the 250 seats won by Ensemble (Renaissance, Modem, Horizon) and the 61 seats obtained by the Union from the right and from the center (LR, UDI). If we had considered the construction of a majority as a prerequisite, we would have witnessed negotiations between these two forces. Among our European neighbors, these negotiations can last several weeks, even several months, because they consider that there is no other option than to build a majority, even a fragile one. Let’s imagine for a moment that these two political forces engaged in these discussions aimed at agreeing on a program of government. In this program would have appeared the postponement of the retirement age, and in this government of the LR ministers who would then have been part of the defenders of the reform. Which reform would therefore have been passed, not without a social crisis and a massive mobilization of unions and opponents, but without adding this institutional crisis which highlighted the impossibility of uniting a majority on a text presented as major.

The constitution of a majority around Renaissance and LR has never been seriously on the agenda, and, at a time when this clearly has consequences, we must be surprised, not to redo the match or blame the actors who did not want to build it, but to try to understand this French exception. What distinguishes us from European parliamentary regimes is obviously the role and method of appointing the president, and the difficulties they pose in a political system that has become multipolar. The supremacy of the presidential election, the jubilation in the winning camp and the shadow it casts over the legislative elections make us forget that it is not the real election for the allocation of power. And since only the presidential election counts, it may seem preferable to remain in the opposition to hope to win the next one rather than to participate in the exercise of power. The crisis that the government is experiencing today highlights the limits of a presidential majority without a legislative majority, and the brandished weapon of dissolution does not change much. The new Assembly which would be elected in the event of dissolution is very likely to pose the key question even more acutely: can one govern without a constituted parliamentary majority?

* Emmanuel Rivière is international director for political studies at Kantar Public.