Q+A  

Does France’s pension reform controversy highlight the need for deliberative democracy?

French President Emmanuel Macron’s end run around parliament may be legally sound, but Ash Center Democracy Fellow Yves Sintomer argues the move was markedly anti-democratic.

Photo of protestors in France walking with signs

Early this month, the streets of Paris were once again filled with the sounds of protests. In response to proposed pension reforms raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, intended to stave off a growing deficit in the country’s retirement system, workers including teachers and trash collectors walked off the job to join the demonstrations.

The reforms championed by President Emmanuel Marcon are unpopular, with opinion polls showing a majority against the plan. Nevertheless, Macron and his Renaissance party continued to push their proposal, ultimately bypassing the National Assembly, and moving to enact the change without the approval of the country’s largest representative legislative body.

With public opinion at odds with the government, many are questioning the democratic legitimacy of Macron’s actions. To learn more about how these events not only impact French democracy, but also to understand how political systems can better reflect the will of the people, we sat down with Yves Sintomer, a visiting democracy fellow at the Ash Center from Paris 8 University and an expert on French society, citizen participation, and deliberative democracy.

Ash: For those unfamiliar with the French political system, how was President Emmanuel Macron able to effectively bypass a vote in parliament on raising the retirement age from 62 to 64?

Yves Sintomer: The French political system gives huge power to the president — higher than in the United States — as the prime minister is a subordinate, and the parliament’s power is reduced compared to those of the administration. Since 2002, legislative elections take place a couple of weeks after the presidential ones, so that usually ensures the president can count on a parliamentary majority. This did not happen in the 2022 elections when Macron failed to secure an absolute majority in the National Assembly. However, the executive branch has another instrument to impose its will. Article 49.3 of the constitution allows a bill to become law without a vote unless a no-confidence vote passes with an absolute majority.

How common is the maneuver that Macron used to bypass a vote in parliament?

In less than a year, France’s Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has used this maneuver eleven times. Altogether, article 49.3 has been used around one hundred times since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The prime minister who most extensively relied on it was the Socialist Michel Rocard’s government, under Mitterand’s presidency, with 28 laws adopted through this procedure in three years (1988-1991). Nowadays, this maneuver can happen without any limit for bills related to public finance, but only once for ordinary bills in each parliamentary session (usually once a year).

Though observers consider Macron’s move legally sound, you have argued that it is in essence anti-democratic. How can it be both simultaneously legal and anti-democratic?

Democracy cannot be reduced to elections and formal parliamentary rules. A healthy democracy includes a social dialogue with unions, a government responsive to citizens, a vibrant civil society, the building of coalitions in parliament when majorities are needed, participatory devices which enable citizens to take part in the decision-making process, and high-quality deliberation at all levels. The reform of the pension system has been imposed against the will of all the unions, even the most moderate; against a huge majority of French citizens, according to the polls, in all age groups and in all regions; in the face of huge demonstrations and strikes; and against the majority of deputies in the National Assembly. The quality of deliberation has been particularly low. This is dangerous at a time when electoral democracies are under threat and authoritarian tendencies are getting stronger. Democracy must be updated, and made more democratic, not the opposite, in order to face the new challenges of the 21st century.

Polls indicate that a majority in France oppose the reform, and it’s likely that street protests against the proposal and the way it was enacted will continue. What options are left to opponents at this point?

Two motions of no confidence, one trans-partisan and one from the far-right National Rally, will be discussed in parliament. In order for any of them to pass, all opposition MPs (from the far left, the classical right, and the far right) must vote together. It’s unlikely this will happen. The other option is that the street protests press so strongly that the government does not enact the law for fear of losing too much political trust. Although not probable, this could happen. The last scenario is one of social unrest, riots, political anger, without any positive outcome in the short term and potentially disastrous consequences in the middle term. In four years, Marine Le Pen and her authoritarian, racist and nationalist program could win the next presidential elections.

Your research examines different methods of deliberative democracy that give citizens a greater voice in government—ranging from citizens’ assemblies to participatory budgeting. How has France fared in this regard?

France is in an ambivalent situation. Participatory and deliberative experiments are blooming. Participatory budgeting, which enables lay citizens to take part in the distribution of public resources, is developing, with probably 400 cases in 2023, 10 times more than existed 2 years ago. A number of citizens’ assemblies for the climate, with citizens randomly selected in order to get a fair cross-section of the community, have been organized at national, regional, and city levels. Other citizens’ assemblies take place on different issues. One will end its sessions next month on the issue of the end of life – it will probably recommend the legalization of euthanasia. The city of Paris has created a permanent citizens’ assembly, which among other things decides the topics of the city’s participatory budgeting. Hundreds, probably thousands, of other participatory and deliberative devices exist at local levels.

The problem is that with the exception of participatory budgeting, most often these methods are only consultative. Local, regional, and national governments can cherry-pick what they want, and this could lead to disillusion and reinforce political distrust. Research shows that this is too often the case. And in some experiments randomly selected mini publics are used against community associations and social movements, which can also be seen as a problem.

Do you think that the protests against Macon’s move to bypass parliament have the potential to spark a broader conversation about the future of democracy in France?

As a person, I tend to be optimistic, but I must confess that in the present context, I am pessimistic, and I am not alone. The challenges are huge. Europe is declining, inequalities are growing, although not as much as in the U.S., France is in the middle of an identity crisis. These challenges can hardly be faced without a vibrant democratic conversation. I do not see it happening in the near future. This said, the idea that the status quo is not an option when one wants to avoid bigger troubles is becoming popular. More and more people, in communities, in the academy, in the media, and even within political parties, are considering substantive reforms. Let’s hope a breakthrough will happen in the coming years.


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