Political Unrest in France: Analyst Insight
Recent unrest in France has been fueled by police brutality as well as wider social and political factors. But, ongoing since January 2023, pension reform has been the cause of clashes and major disruption across the country.
Since January 2023, protests and political unrest have caused instability across France, stemming from Macron and his government wanting to push through pension reforms, including raising the state pension age from 62 to 64.
Although this reform was seen to be unpopular, it became even more unpopular when the government used a special constitutional power to force through the changes without a vote in the French Assembly. This calls into question the relationship between the French Executive and the French Parliament on how they change laws and the checks and balances between both branches. The triggering of the special constitutional power on 16th March 2023 led to unplanned demonstrations and a riot in Paris, leading to 258 arrests made by the police. What this demonstrates is how the Executive can use special constitutional power to dismiss the French Assembly, causing mass unrest and anger across the country. Therefore, it is important to know how political division can cause mass protests leading to business insecurity and instability by knowing the following:
- Background behind the French Constitution.
- Previous political conflicts.
- Macron’s pension reform.
- Future threats to security and businesses in France.
Background to the Constitution of the Fifth Republic of the French Constitution
The Constitution of the Fifth Republic laid down the foundations for the semi-presidential system we see today. Whereas the Third and Fourth Republic’s Presidents acted like constitutional monarchs, the Constitution of 1958 gave the President more effective political power. It can be argued that the Parliament in the Fifth Republic is a weak parliamentary system as the President becomes more powerful. Meaning that the Prime Minister can just become the President’s mouthpiece instead of having the power to preside over the Government’s actions and policies.
Furthermore, there are certain articles in the Constitution which allow the President to be the sole arbiter, especially in times of national emergency. However, the one article that has led to widespread demonstrations in France is Article 49.3. The Article allows the President and the government to pass a bill without a vote at the National Assembly, which was designed to avoid deadlock. However, for the French people, this becomes quite the issue as both the President and the National Assembly have gained political legitimacy through democratic elections. Therefore, what is the legitimate way to pass legislation under the current French political system?
Past political conflicts in France
Under the Fifth Republic from 1958 to 1968, the student population in France nearly trebled, which led to the rise of communism and socialism as they saw failed Western intervention in Communist South-East Asia. During this same time, left-wing political opposition seemed to essentially collapse, meaning change through the legislature seemed impossible. These two factors led to widespread student protests for educational reform, causing mass disruption and mass arrests. Whilst the students demanded democratic and educational reform, millions of workers joined the students setting forth their own demands in the largest general strike in French history.
Political unrest swept through France in May 1968 due to strikes and protests, causing huge anxiety for De Gaulle and the French government. Using his 10-year experience in office, De Gaulle decided to dissolve the National Assembly and propose fresh elections with a proviso that the army would be imposed to bring “order” if violent unrest continued. This political move by De Gaulle was an initial success, the demonstrations died down, and De Gaulle won a resounding victory in the elections, winning 295 seats out of 487. However, within ten months, De Gaulle was out of office for failing to get through his reforms; at the same time, the political protests that swept through France seemed to be the inevitable end of De Gaulle’s premiership. Will the current political protests cause real instability for Macron and his government?
Pension reform under Emmanuel Macron
One of Macron’s biggest electoral promises in 2022 was pension reform, with the aim of raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030. On 10th January 2023, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne unveiled the pension reform, which received huge criticism from unions and left-wing opponents. The government has urged this reform is necessary as the French working population is living longer, and to be financially sustainable, it must raise the retirement age. There was a mass of criticism coming from all sides of the political spectrum, with hard-left political leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon calling the reform ‘social regression’ and far-right Deputy in the National Legislative Assembly, Marine Le Pen, calling it ‘unjust reform’.
[Image Source: Intelligence Fusion]
On 16th March, criticism against the pension reform became louder as Macron and his government decided to resort to using Article 49.3 in the French Constitution, which allows the government to pass a bill without a vote from the National Assembly. Although this article was put into the Constitution to avoid the deadlock that gripped the Fourth Republic, it puts huge political pressure on the president and the government. Only four days later, on 20th March, Macron’s government survived a critical vote of no-confidence by only nine votes; meanwhile, thousands of people took to the streets to protest. Many people and many unions have been angered by the pension reform and have felt disconnect with Emmanuel Macron, as the French people feel their fundamental values are under threat. They promise to work hard, and in return, the state provides the French people with essential benefits. Therefore, what is the future of the French political system and the level of momentum to keep protesting the pension reform?
Future threats to businesses amid the political unrest in France
From 10th January 2023 to 26th June 2023, there were 393 demonstrations, riots, and strikes reported on the Intelligence Fusion platform. Although not all these incidents will be in relation to the pension reform, in the same time frame in 2022, there were 271 demonstrations, riots, and strikes reported. This clearly shows a significant increase in demonstrations and real anger towards the actions of the French government. Whilst there is still resentment and protests still occurring in France against the pension reform, movements seem to have died down over the last few months since the imposition of Article 49.3. When the article is imposed, it creates a delicate situation for the government and relies on time for the situation to die down.
It is also important to note that the French Government declared 100 days of appeasement from mid-April to the 14th of July (National Day), which might have an impact on further protests.
However, the unrest following the death of Nahel Merzouk has created a break in this 100-day appeasement period.
It is believed that Macron weathered the worst of the storm in the early parts of 2023 from the data collected and what has happened during previous periods of political unrest.
49 road blockades and riots were reported throughout France in March and April 2023; this form of protest is a threat to businesses and can cause significant disruption and delays. However, in May and June 2023, only 12 road blockades and riots were reported, demonstrating the threat of significant civil unrest related to pension reform for the immediate future is limited to moderate.
[Image Source: Intelligence Fusion]
Whilst it is believed that the threat of political unrest is limited from analysing open-source intelligence, it is always important to remain vigilant regarding the French political system, especially after what happened to President De Gaulle ten months after the May 68 events.
Macron and his government could use another special constitutional power to achieve their aims for failing to have a majority in the National Assembly, which could cause further political and civil turmoil. However, from OSINT reports and knowledge of previous events, political unrest is not expected to be a security and business threat in the immediate future.
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