By resorting to Article 49.3, the French establishment has violated its social contract
The events that have unfolded in France over pension reforms point to the exact opposite of what constitutes a social contract.
The famed political theorist, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy had a significant impact on the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, as well as phases of the French Revolution. His ‘Social Contract’ vouched for a political system in the absence of monarchs being divinely empowered to legislate public affairs and only a political community established in the face of problems of commercial society should be considered the appropriate form of government. These principles however are being blatantly ignored by the Emmanuel Macron establishment in 2023. The events that have unfolded in France over pension reforms point to the exact opposite of what constitutes a social contract, where the French government continues to adopt unilateral measures that come at the expense of the will of the people.
The result of such defiance is societal implosion. Since the start of 2023, anti-pension reform protests have rocked the length and breadth of France and made global headlines as the excessive use of force from the authorities, which is aimed at curbing the onslaught, continues to backfire. In the city of Nantes, protesters hurled projectiles and set garbage bins on fire while Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin continues to justify the deployment of 13,000 troops over the need to maintain public order. This is although the Council of Europe, which is the continent’s leading human rights organization, denounced the Macron government’s excessive actions to quell the unrest. The French government, however, does not seem to pay any heed.
Due to such defiance from the authorities, the situation has deteriorated to a point where the French Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, is seen scrambling desperately to meet opposition leaders and trade unions to diffuse the situation. However, the decision to raise the retirement age for French citizens by two years from 62-64 has been met with a cold shoulder from trade unions who have categorically rejected the reform plan under constitutional examination. The leader of the French Democratic Confederation Laurent Berger, for example, called on Macron to pause the adoption of reform and resort to a mediation process instead. These rallying calls are also falling on deaf ears as Borne remains defiant that the reforms plans will pass through.
The problem hence lies in the manner in which the Macron administration has dealt with parliamentary norms, societal goodwill, and the ensuing protests. According to Prime Minister Borne, the French President had asked to draft the government program with subsequent persistence that pension reform will be adopted by force. The knee-jerk reaction of appeasing disgruntled elements of the parliament, local authorities, and social partners can best be summarized as an ‘afterthought’, which explains why last-minute attempts to placate the raging protesters have now become a tedious and cumbersome task. The decision to use extraconstitutional powers on March 16, 2023, to force the plan through, for example, did follow no-confidence votes from the opposition which were later rejected. This chaos in parliament is emblematic of the level of insecurity that France faces which has only been exasperated by the brazen use of force on the streets of major cities across the country.
By invoking Article 49.3 of the French constitution which allows the government to adopt a draft bill, which, in this case, is raising the retirement age from 62-64 by 2030 and requiring at least 43 years of work to be eligible for full pensions, without parliamentary approval, the government is ensuring that their political maneuvers trump the sentiment and pulse of the society. Hence, scheduled talks with the Prime Minister over the next three weeks could prove to be a futile exercise, as any diffusion of the crisis is only possible if rationality trumps insensitivity. Worthwhile is to pay heed to calls from Laurent Berger to appoint a mediator between the unions and the government, as the complete withdrawal of the pensions law remains a recurring demand from the CGT union leader. These smart political maneuvers can potentially settle the situation, although skepticism remains over whether the scale of protests, which predate mediation calls, can subside.
Whether President Macron and his cabinet would adopt this course of action is also open to an array of different interpretations. The anger of close to 3.5 million people across France reaching a tipping point has meant that President Macron’s defiance despite being touted as a centrist leader who believes in liberal reforms will continue to inflame tensions and contribute to domestic turmoil. On the other side, he faces another quagmire. Caving into the protesters' demands would ignore the challenge of managing the French economy where pensions account for 112% of the GDP of the total national debt as compared to 98% before the COVID-19 pandemic. With such delicacies and intricacies involved, only presidents who believe in the writ of the state being subject to the approval of the common citizenry and choose shrewd policy-making over hubris can survive.
Sadly, by invoking Article 49.3, President Macron has established his reputation as a centrist politician who adopts a dictatorial approach when governing and issuing policies related to the will of the French people. His ascension to power as president was previously followed by the grassroots-level Yellow Vests movement, which initially advocated for economic justice over subjects such as higher costs of living, rising oil prices, and unemployment to greater political reforms.
In 2023, nothing changed.