"It's The Democracy, Stupid!" What Is Really Turning France Upside Down
To prevent France's current institutional crisis from leading to a regime crisis, it is not a question of the much criticized pension reform — or even that Emmanuel Macron must resign. A change is needed in the very way French democracy functions.
PARIS — Paris is burning, France is reaching a tipping point. One cannot refer to hundreds of thousands of protesters, millions of demonstrators and tens of millions of angry citizens to a simple misunderstanding or a failure of French President Emmanuel Macron and the government to explain their policy choices.
Something has broken. But what exactly?
When analyzed dispassionately, this pension reform that has prompted a massive movement of strikes and protests over the past two months is neither as necessary as the government insists, nor as unfair as the opposition claims. The expected savings are minimal, and in no way correct the structural imbalance between generations (with current retirees "recouping" far more of their contributions than future retirees).
On the other side, the situation of the most precarious workers will remain essentially unchanged: the age of entitlement is maintained at 62 for the disabled and the unfit-for-work, workers with uneven careers will still be able to cancel their tax relief only at 67 and beneficiaries of the minimum old age pension will obtain it at 65, like they do today.
On average, according to the government's impact study, the effective retirement age will be pushed back seven months, the result of a thousand exemptions that further complicate an already unintelligible system.
In the end, it is simply a mediocre reform, far from the original idea of a universal points-based system that would have allowed everyone to manage their working life more freely.
In truth, the issue is no longer social but institutional. It is no coincidence that the protests took a completely different turn on Thursday, March 16, when the French Parliament was deprived of its vote. The infamous Article 49.3, which allows the government to push through legislation without the Parliament's approval, is not the only one at fault. The government first hid its pension reform in a rectifying Social Security finance bill. It then used Article 47.1 to shorten the debate in the Assembly — and Articles 44.2 and 44.3 to block the votes in the Senate.
The spirit of democracy is not to impose a law that nobody wants.
Let us remember that our jurisprudence has always sanctioned the "abuse of rights," when the letter of the law is respected, but the spirit of the law is diverted. Whatever the decision of the Constitutional Council as to the strict legality of the text, we must deplore the abuse of constitutional law of which our democracy has become the victim. The spirit of democracy is not to impose a law that nobody wants.
This abuse of the law betrays a conflict of legitimacies. Macron maintains the illusion that his election is tantamount to preordained approval of his entire legislative program, paving the way for him to use Article 49.3 to impose it. The demonstrators outraged at this approach are not mistaken. They focused their slogans directly at Macron and denounced, with excess but not without reason, his authoritarian drift. They were indignant that parliamentary sovereignty was being trampled so blatantly.
Monsieur Macron, are you listening?
Emotions over ideas
We have thus reached the acme of the so-called Fifth Republic, France's constitutional system of governance imposed in 1958 to give more power to the presidency. The meeting of a man and a people, the founding myth of the presidential election by universal suffrage, has turned into a confrontation where, on both sides, emotions take precedence over ideas. It is not ultimately a question of raising the retirement age, but of who decides and for what reasons.
In the early 1990s, Bill Clinton won the U.S. elections with the famous analysis of one of his advisors: "It's the economy, stupid." Today, someone should tell Emmanuel Macron: "It's the democracy, stupid."
To prevent the institutional crisis from leading to a regime crisis, it is not that Macron must resign, but presidential power that must be reduced. Parliament must be given back full control over the nation's politics, as it was for nearly a century, from the advent of the Third Republic in 1870 to the referendum sought by Charles De Gaulle in 1962.
If members of Parliament today have such a bad image, it is because they are disempowered by the presidential election.
Let us provide them again real power, and they will show themselves capable of compromise and alliances. To do this, we can dream of a Sixth Republic, or more simply return to the Fifth as conceived by Michel Debré, with a president elected by indirect suffrage, the guarantor of the balance of the institutions, but withdrawn from political action. Nothing would prevent the introduction of a proportional ballot, the only way to represent the variety of political opinions.
The president has pledged to reform the institutions. The anger in the street should now push him to propose radical changes, which should start by sawing off the branch on which he is so awkwardly perched.
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