France: Philippe government guillotines parliamentary debate to force through pension attacks

By Lisbeth Latham

March 2, 2020  — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Revitalising Labour — On February 29, French prime minister Edouard Philippe announced that the government would use clause 49.3 of the French Constitution, which allows the government to pass legislation without a parliamentary vote, to enable the government to expedite the passing the government’s controversial pension reforms. The exercise of Guillotine was primarily aimed at blunting efforts by left parties to hold up the passage of the legislation through parliament. However, the government also hopes that the passage of the legislation will undermine the current movement to defend the pensions.

Pensions legislation

Despite the government announcing it would push through the legislation, it remains unclear exactly what form the legislation will take, with France24 reporting that the pension age will remain at 62, however, the “Pivot Age” when workers can access their full pension will be extended to 64 – which reflects concessions to the opponents of the counter-reforms.

This is the first time since 2015, that a government has activated clause 49.3 to push through legislation. The clause allows the government to pass legislation without a parliamentary vote, with parliamentary opponents of legislation only able to block it if they can pass a motion of “no confidence” in the government. During the passing of the El Khomri attacks on France’s Labour Law, when Macron was the finance minister in the Parti Socialiste (PS) government. On that occasion, clause 49.3 was enacted because opposition within the PS put at risk the government’s majority and the government correctly assessed that they would be less at risk of a no-confidence vote.

Parliamentary response

The Philippe government’s use of clause 49.3 is not a response to a concern of an inability to pass legislation, despite some defections, the ruling Le REM (République en Marche - Republic on the March) government has a comfortable parliamentary majority. Instead, the government is seeking to truncate debate over more than 40, 000 amendments which have been moved by the opposition, primarily the parties of the left. After 119 hours of debate, there are still more than 29 000 amendments that are yet to be discussed. Philippe in parliamentary debate described the step of cutting debate as “not to put an end to debate but to end this period of non-debate”. Motions of no confidence have been flagged by both MPs of the Parti Communiste Francais and France Insoumise (France Untamed - FI) and by the far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally). FI leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon denounced the use of clause 49.3 as an “extraordinarily violent” methods of the government.

The movement continues

Since the start of the mobilisations and strikes against the pensions reforms on December 5, France’s union movement has been highly divided. With left-wing trade unions and student organisations calling ongoing mobilisations, strikes, and blockades aimed at the total withdrawal the counter-reforms, also linked to local and sectorial struggles – including the longest transport strike in France in the last 50 years. On the other hand, the more conservative unions, particularly the Confédération française démocratique du travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labour - CFDT), have sought to focus on lobbying the government for amendments to mitigate against the worst aspects of the counter-reforms. With the leadership CFDT actively making statements against the mobilisations of more left unions, including tweets from the CFDT denouncing strikes as a method of struggle for unions. This conservatism and limited participation in the mobilisations have led to significant tensions between the CFDT and the memberships of more militant unions, tensions which have come to protests by militants from Solidaires and Confédération Générale du Travail (General Confederation of Labour - CGT) at the CFDT national headquarters, including the cutting off of electricity to CFDT building by CGT power workers. Protests which have been denounced by the CFDT leadership as an attempt at intimidation.

In response, the leaderships of the CGT, Force Ouvriere (Workers Force), Fédération Syndicale Unitaire (Unitary Trade Union Federation), and Solidaires have denounced the activation of clause 49.3 and called for new mobilisations from March 5-8 as well as calling for amplifying the mobilisations which had already called for March 31. The struggle against the pension reforms will also be a feature of the International Women’s Day mobilisations and Women’s Strike on March 8 and 9.

In contrast, the CFDT and Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens (French Confederation of Christian Workers) have announced that they are hopeful the government will still include amendments which they have lobbied for in the final legislation. The government will be hoping that the pushing through of the legislation will help demobilise the movement against the counter-reforms, which is what has happened with previous movements over the last decade. However, a major difference between the current movement and those previous ones, is that the conservative unions have played almost no role in the current mobilisations, and so they will not be able to have the same demobilisation effect on the movement as they did in the past.

In addition to the coming mobilisations, the municipal elections, scheduled for March 15 and March 22, are expected to be a significant test of public opinions towards the government. Indeed, it is thought that the pushing through of the legislation prior to elections was aimed at reducing the extent to which the elections would be used to protest against Le REM candidates.

Whilst the government appears confident that it has successfully passed its counter-reforms, it remains to be seen if this will signal the end of the movement or its intensification.

Lisbeth Latham is a contributing editor with the Irish Broad Left.