Unrest in France challenges Macron’s ambitions – Brookings Institution


March 31, 2023
Order from Chaos
Foreign Politics & Elections U.S. Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy
Center on the United States and Europe
More than one million protestors took to the streets in France on March 24, 2023, in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms, which would raise the country’s retirement age from 62 to 64. This was the 10th day of national mobilization since January 19, 2023, and the demonstrations show no sign of stopping. After Macron’s government lost its absolute majority in the National Assembly in the 2022 legislative elections — leaving it unable to pass the law through a simple majority — the government decided to use a constitutional tool called Article 49.3, which allows it to pass a law in parliament without a vote on the text. The decision resulted in the government facing two votes of no confidence, which it didn’t lose — but the main one, pushed by a centrist minister of parliament, fell short by only nine votes, indicating how volatile the political situation in France is right now. Macron has said that he will not back down, though there is precedent for the government using Article 49.3 and then later withdrawing the law in response to massive and continuous public protests.
After winning the presidential election last year and beating Marine Le Pen, Macron found himself short of a full majority in the subsequent legislative elections. He has since been struggling with a relative majority, preventing him from pushing the reform agenda he believes he was elected to implement and forcing him to make deals with different political parties inside the National Assembly.
It is an open question whether the “Macron method” in foreign policy, where he puts forward an initiative and then tries to gather momentum and consensus around it, will be applied to French domestic politics. Macron has long said that “en même temps” (meaning “at the same time” in French) — i.e., working simultaneously on a variety of objectives and overcoming traditional divides — was why he wanted to become president. However, there is a question now of how he can overcome political divides and at the same time present the French population with a comprehensive, inclusive, and participatory solution.
There were questions following the no-confidence votes on whether Macron would keep Élisabeth Borne as prime minister. Macron is adamant that he will, though Borne needs to find a way out of the current impasse. He has now tasked her with a “widening of the presidential majority,” which will certainly entail tilting to the right, as both Macron and Borne have little cachet with left-wing voters.
On March 24, Macron gave a much-expected interview to explain the situation and the way forward. He said that he would not yield to violence and that he was now waiting for the Constitutional Council’s final decision on the reform, which it should announce by the end of April. Macron also committed to working with unions on implementing the pension reform.
Another option on the table — which Macron has rejected, so far — is a dissolution of the National Assembly. If that occurs, some projections suggest that the far-right Rassemblement National (National Front) and the left-wing coalition NUPES would receive the two largest shares of the votes, and Macron’s Renaissance would come in third.
In terms of foreign policy, not much change is to be expected, though. France’s constitution lets the foreign policy decisionmaking process rest in the hands of a few individuals. Macron has given the diplomatic cell at the Élysée even more weight in policy setting and policymaking. And, in the face of domestic difficulties, he seems to be following a trend set by his predecessors — focusing his time on foreign policy, which is a “domaine reservé,” a field reserved to the national executive.
Macron’s foreign policy agenda will not be affected by the protests. He is continuing with a planned trip to China, together with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in the beginning of April. If his agenda is any indication, he will remain extremely involved in foreign policy in the weeks to come.
France’s current instability might pave the way for populist and nationalist parties’ voting shares to grow further. It is a euphemism to write that the far-right and the far-left party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) have indicated that they wouldn’t support staunch French support for Ukraine. Although NUPES — a wide-ranging coalition of left-wing parties — shares major domestic policy goals, the parties diverge on foreign policy, particularly as it relates to Russia and Ukraine.
Even if parliament plays a marginal role in foreign policy decisionmaking in France, a new National Assembly could also decide to become more vocal and more vehemently question Paris’ current military, financial, humanitarian, and material support to Ukraine. A major issue in Europe right now is ensuring that European and trans-Atlantic unity on support to Ukraine is not only maintained but reinforced. If France were to weaken its support, that would have very serious consequences for internal European Union cohesion and the future of European security.
Interestingly, the French constitution and the Fifth Republic — which Macron, channeling his inner Charles de Gaulle, interpreted from the beginning in a Jupiterean, top-down way — are now putting the onus on the French president to find an inclusive and constructive way out of the political crisis. Macron needs a change in method so that he can dedicate the remaining four years of his second term to bring about some of the reforms — including the institutional ones — that he promised when he first came to power in 2017.
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