French parliamentary politics turned this week into a lying poker game in which winners are losers and losers are winners.
Two votes of confidence in the National Assembly on Monday evening, when the far right and the far left voted against the government, failed to bring down centrist Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne. The unexpected joint vote could still signal trouble ahead.
Borne was a “winner”, but she came within 50 votes of being forced out of office – a much narrower margin than expected.
Borne and President Emmanuel Macron have proven they can tangle, despite losing their parliamentary majority in June. They successfully used the emergency provisions of the constitution to force a first reading of the government’s 2023 budget.
They will use the same provisions over and over – as permitted by the constitution – to push through spending plans in the weeks ahead. The adoption of a budget, however, is the minimum required of a government.
The closeness of Monday’s vote suggests Macron and Borne will have a harder time pushing through other, more sweeping legislation, such as their plan to reform France’s pension system – a centerpiece of Macron’s re-election agenda. They can only use their emergency powers under Article 49.3 of the Constitution once a year for non-financial legislation.
The undisputed tactical “winner” of the evening was far-right leader Marine Le Pen. After having bluffed the Assembly and the media, she reversed her party’s 89 votes at the last moment to support a motion of censure tabled by the left.
Le Pen is now in a position to claim that she is a sincere, nonpartisan and pragmatic opponent of Macronism, ready to vote with her enemies on the left to bring down the government and risk a snap election.
In fact, she knew perfectly well that she was in no danger of such a thing.
Most of the bloc of 62 center-right deputies belonging to or allied with the Republicans had announced that they would not support a motion of no confidence. It was their votes, or their non-votes, that saved the government – as Le Pen knew they would.
An absolute majority — 289 votes — of the 577 deputies was necessary. The alliance of the left and the far right gathered 239 votes – 50 less.
The centre-right bloc were also kind of “winners” – but uncomfortable in victory. They hold the balance of power in the split Assembly but they themselves are split.
Some are inclined to support the government. Others hate Macron and all his works, blaming him for the implosion of their once-dominant party.
Le Pen’s decision to change his vote and back the left-wing no-confidence motion — as well as his own — was largely to embarrass center-right Republicans. After the vote, she described them as an “oyster park” – meaning unable to stray and ripe for harvest. “There is no longer any doubt that the Republicans are allies of Emmanuel Macron,” she said.
Some members of the left alliance also claimed victory. It was, after all, their no-confidence motion, not Le Pen’s, that came closest to overthrowing the government.
In truth, Le Pen’s sleight of hand was a moral victory over the left. A few weeks ago, left-wing MPs refused to stand for a parliamentary football team because it included Lepennis players. On Monday evening, they abruptly found themselves aligned on the same half of the political field as Le Pen.
In the June legislative elections and April presidential election, some leftist anti-Macron voters swung in the second round of voting to support the far right. Le Pen hopes this week’s unholy de facto alliance with the left will persuade more leftists to join her if she reaches the presidential runoff against a centrist in 2027.
In the short term, last night’s vote reassures Macron and Borne, but it is also a warning.
As Borne pointed out, there is “no alternative majority” capable of governing the country; there is only a negative alliance of extremes “without common values, without shared convictions and without coherent ambitions”.
On the other hand, an endless series of narrow government victories through emergency procedures and confidence motions is a haphazard way to govern a country in which politics so easily take to the streets.
The Macron-Borne government can survive. Can he really rule?
Macron seems determined to prove he can. He says he will push through the pension reform by March, again using the emergency guillotine provisions of Article 49.3 if necessary. He said he would not hesitate to call a snap election if the government lost a vote of confidence.
The left and the extreme right will probably team up again to try to defeat him. Everything will therefore depend on the Republicans. Their response will depend in part on the outcome of an uncertain leadership election in December.
Logically, all 62 center-right MPs should vote for Macron’s plan to push back the minimum pension to 64 by 2027 (and 65 eventually). The LR party has long campaigned for a similar reform. The center-right in a hurry has every reason to fear early elections if it votes to bring down the Borne government.
Macron and Borne could therefore force pension reform through the Assembly with de facto centre-right support in the new year. The question raised by Monday’s vote is ultimately one of courage or political stubbornness rather than parliamentary arithmetic.
Should a government with such a fragile mandate, in these difficult times, impose a controversial reform that two-thirds of French people oppose?
The answer, in the end, may not come to the National Assembly but to the streets.