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No majority? No problem: French government overrides parliament
How do you pass critical budgetary legislation without a parliamentary majority? This is the challenge of any minority government, but France has an innovative solution, albeit with democratic ramifications.
First, some context. In June, Macron failed to get a parliamentary majority, leaving a hung parliament with four main factions, of which Macron's party and its allies (centre and centre-right) is the largest. The other three factions in the French parliament are the Republicans (right); NUPES, the left-green alliance that spans numerous parties from centre-left to far-left; and National Rally (NR), who are far-right.
Macron's weakness is that he can't get any of the other factions to join forces with him. The Republicans sometimes prop up his government but their support is conditional and ad hoc. While Macron has shifted his policies to be more aligned to the right, the Republicans are keen to remain an independent political force and they have refused to support the government’s budgets. Meanwhile, NUPES is somewhat split between moderates & radicals. The Socialists, some of whom once identified as “Macron-compatible”, are now in an alliance with the Greens, Communists, and Mélenchon’s hard-left party, La France Insoumise (LFI), who are willing to oppose the government on everything.
But Macron's strength is that his opponents cannot unite against him. The Republicans' sympathies usually lie more with Macron's party than with the left or NR, both of whom are also (usually) more opposed to each other than to Macron.
Which brings us to the budget. Budgetary legislation is a major part of the French legislative calendar, typically taking up the whole autumn and spanning numerous pieces of legislation. With none of the opposition parties willing to support any of the bills relating to the budget, how does the government get this crucial legislation through? The answer is written into the French constitution in the form of article 49.3, which allows the government to force legislation through without submitting it to a vote in parliament. No majority? No problem.
Article 49.3 is a controversial tool. It was designed with this exact purpose in mind: to ensure that a minority government could still pursue its legislative agenda effectively, unhindered by an obstructive opposition. It not only allows the government to force the legislation through, but also enables them to determine the speed at which legislation is passed (and hence how much debate to allow), and the form that the legislation takes (and hence how many amendments to include). One of the strategies of opposition parties has been a proliferation of amendments to government bills, some of which have also received some support from the governing parties, but the government has the power to discard any and all of these amendments if it so chooses. The ability of French MPs to debate, scrutinise and amend legislation is thus severely curtailed. The government has already resorted to using article 49.3 three times in a fortnight to ram its legislation through, and has indicated its willingness to continue doing so for as long as necessary to get the whole budget passed.
Macron’s government is not the first to use article 49.3 (it was also used heavily by Michel Rocard, prime minister under Mitterrand, when he lacked a parliamentary majority), but we are facing the most extensive over-riding of parliament in a generation. This is partly because minority governments are a rare phenomenon in France, which uses a form of single-member plurality, and usually confers a governing majority upon its presidents. The realignment of the French party system means that we are now in a position where the government cannot rely on parliament for support, and instead has to use the constitutional bypass.
The use of 49.3 is not without limitations. The first was introduced by Sarkozy in 2008 to prevent abuse of the article by an over-reaching government. It means that 49.3 must be used primarily for budgetary legislation, with only one further use permitted per parliamentary session (ie once per year, unless additional sessions are scheduled, resulting in a maximum of about ten usages outside the budget). That is still a considerable power, given how much of parliamentary business is covered by the budget. Judicious usage would still allow a government to push through much of its agenda without having to compromise.
The second limitation is that the use of 49.3 can be overturned by parliament through a vote of censure. This is where Macron’s strength comes back in – the divided opposition cannot unite to override the government. Not for lack of trying: NUPES and NR have both attempted to censure the government. Initially, neither side supported the other’s motion. However, NR supported the most recent motion, introduced by LFI without the remainder of NUPES, who had become concerned about the proliferation of unsuccessful motions. The support of NR made other members of NUPES uneasy, but most of them ultimately supported the motion. However, even the combined forces of left and far-right are not enough. While the Republicans will not support the budget, nor will they support any motion of censure against the government, and without their support, the opposition does not have the numbers needed for a motion of censure to pass.
All of which leaves the government well placed to continue with its stated intention of overriding parliament and forcing its legislation through. The government argues that doing so is necessary to ensure effective governance in a time of crisis. The consequence, however, is that a minority government has chosen force over compromise, with significant repercussions for representative democracy.
Professor Rainbow Murray, Queen Mary University of London, is an expert on representation, political institutions, gender and diversity, with particular expertise in French and British politics, and a convenor of the PSA French Politics and Policy Specialist Group.