Interview. 'In a regime like ours, which is more presidential than parliamentary, there are great difficulties if there is no majority to support the president.'

How presidentialism rose in France, culminating in Macron’s pension reform

In Italy, the majority is debating the introduction of semi-presidentialism. Meanwhile, in recent months, the French “model” is showing signs of crisis. President Emmanuel Macron pushed through pension reform, the object of street protests, because he failed to win an absolute majority in the Assemblée nationale at the legislative elections that followed the 2022 presidential election.

Dany Cohen, professor of law at SciencesPo, helps us understand how the French institutional system works.

The Fifth Republic was created in 1958 to facilitate government decision-making. What happens now, with pension reform stalled [Macron signed the reform into law after this interview]?

In a regime like ours, which is more presidential than parliamentary, there are great difficulties if there is no majority to support the president. But to overthrow the government you need an opposing majority. It takes a majority to support a no-confidence vote. The first no-confidence motion passed in France was in 1962, against the Pompidou government. A paradoxical fact, taking into account that after the Fourth Republic, in which governments often fell, with the Fifth Republic the President was given a weapon to strike back: the power to dissolve the Assemblée Nationale. Such a concentration of powers does not exist in the U.S., for example, where the President cannot dissolve Congress.

In France nowadays, all the criticism is directed against Macron, not so much against the government. How come?

This doesn’t come from the formal political regime, but from its application in the form of republican monarchy. It is partly the natural tendency of the institutions of the Fifth Republic, but the republican monarchy depends significantly on the strong mediatization of political life. We have moved away from the spirit of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, and the president today is on the front line, more exposed than before. At the start, with De Gaulle, the Prime Minister had more freedom and power than today. Things began to change with Pompidou, who had been Prime Minister before he was President. And the phenomenon became more pronounced with Giscard in 1974, although Chirac as Prime Minister retained more freedoms because his party had many more deputies than the President’s party after the 1973 elections, a unique situation in the Fifth Republic.

The Socialists were a peculiar case: they had been out of power for a quarter century, had never run the institutions. Then Chirac convinced Jospin to reverse the calendar, putting presidential elections first and legislative elections afterwards. The consequence was the prominence of the presidential election. With Sarkozy, the power of the President grew even greater. For example, before him, each minister had the freedom to appoint their own chief of staff, but Sarkozy took over this power for himself, thus imposing a kind of controller on each minister. Macron has done the same, with the sole exception of Edouard Philippe.

Those who defend presidentialism praise its speed in decision-making.

That is not a given. What happens is that the emergency procedure is used more and more: laws usually go through first reading in the Assemblée Nationale and the Senate, then the text goes back to second reading in the two chambers, but under the emergency regime there is only one reading in the Assemblée Nationale. The drawback is also a reduction in quality in the drafting of legislative texts. Laws are passed for show: under Sarkozy, for almost 90 percent of the laws, implementing decrees had not been published two years after the emergency vote. These are laws made for PR purposes. But this does not depend on the institutional regime.

There is talk of a clash of legitimacy: between that of the elected President and that of Parliament, which did not vote on the pension law but rejected the no-confidence motion, and finally that of the public square.

The pension reform has no legitimacy; it is rejected by a large majority of the population. But this is a separate issue from the Fifth Republic and it’s independent of the type of regime. The current crisis resembles that of the days of Alain Juppé as Prime Minister, which in 1997 led to the dissolution of the Assemblée Nationale and new elections, but without passing a no-confidence vote. There are those who infer from this situation that no reforms can be passed in France, that people are attached to social benefits and will react if you try to touch anything. But in the two cases discussed, in ’97 and today, there was a rift between what the candidate said and what he did afterwards.

What was the rift?

Let’s look at Macron, who today says that reform was in his 2022 program. But in 2017, Macron himself had a program with a fairer reform, prepared by progressive economists, that did not include changing the retirement age. People remember that. It is true that there were strikes back then too, but that was because, in addition to moving to an equal pension scheme for all by abolishing special schemes, the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, who was further to the right, had taken the opportunity to slip in a retirement age change, thus losing the support of the CFDT union. The increase in the retirement age was an obvious injustice: those who started working earlier would work longer. Thus, by seeking a small advantage, Philippe made the whole edifice fragile.

What about in 1997?

Back then, Jacques Chirac, challenged from the right by Edouard Balladur who was given as the likely winner, had won with a more left-leaning campaign against the social divide. But then, with the Juppé reform, he did the exact opposite. The French felt that they had been cheated, as they do today. The French of the Mitterrand era particularly remember the lowering of the retirement age from 65 to 60. Thus, the project to move it up to 64 is seen as a social step backwards, a return to the situation before Mitterrand.

On the pension reform, is everything now in the hands of the Constitutional Council, which has to give an opinion on the text of the law, expected on April 14?

The Constitutional Council was designed to be non-functional, although things have changed to an extent since then. Under De Gaulle, it was subordinated to the political power; then it took on greater importance after the general’s death. But it’s different from the Karlsruhe Court in Germany, as it doesn’t have independence – in France, its members are politically appointed. Robert Badinter was the first actual law professor at its head.

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