Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Minority Government: Valls Invokes 49-3 to Secure Passage of the Loi Macron

Manuel Valls announced today that he would resort to Article 49-3 of the French Constitution because the Loi Macron had failed to attract enough support from the ostensible majority to pass. France is now ruled by a minority government, and the hopes of a new beginning raised by the election of Hollande in 2012 are officially dead, along with the always illusory "spirit of January 11." The irony of the situation is that the government has come to this sad pass over the anemic Loi Macron--a watered-down version of the Attali Commission report that has since been further watered down by a month of parliamentary horse trading. Yet despite all this furious backpedaling and bargaining, the left of the left still cannot swallow the modest Macron reforms, while the right will vote against the law, which contains nothing it hasn't supported in the past, solely to embarrass the government. The Valls government is now in a position of utter incoherence, reduced to waiting for something to turn up and without a semblance of unity regarding further reforms.


Swedish-Parisian said...

Is this such a big deal? Many of the most important laws of the 5th Republic were voted thanks to 49.3 (think of the introduction of the CSG tax in 1990).

This article of the Constitution is precisely here to ensure you can pass laws that divide both majority and opposition because they are too much to the right for some, too much to the left for others.

This is the kind of thing that American politics sorely needs in my view!

bernard said...

If the Valls government was a minority government, it would fail to pass the Macron law - irrespective of its merits - on the 49-3, and the Censure Motion would pass. It is a stretch to call it a minority government in the present situation.

All that one can say is that it was at risk of being in a minority on this precise law and deemed it essential that this law pass. As you note of course, the essential nature of this law is open to discussion.

Many governments under the 5th Republic had to use article 49-3 at one point or another, including of course the Rocard government, which survived very well its frequent use of this constitutional article (note that I had about as much regard for him as his father did...). Rocard was eventually replaced, but not because he was in a minority of course, simply because President Mitterrand liked him about as much as I did.

Many governments under the 5th

Mitch Guthman said...

@ Art,

I not sure that I agree with your characterization of the loi Macron as a “reform” since I personally don’t think that making life harder on small shopkeepers and their workers is a reform measure. But, I think we probably beaten that horse to death several times over.

I’m having a hard time understanding Art. 49-3 and what it does. This is partly because the language is too difficult for me but also because the writers (in both Le Monde and Le Parisian) seem to be assuming a base of knowledge which I lack or they lack.

In some places, I see people saying that it can only be used for budgetary laws—but that doesn't seem right. I think some people are saying that it triggers a “no confidence” vote in which all the députées are required to vote for the government, which can't be right, either.

The other point is that I can’t seem to find any limitations on the use of Art. 49.3 and even those the articles that allude to both limitations and risks don't spell them out and, in any case, I can't see what those might be.

But if there isn’t any limitation or and there are no adverse consequences, why hasn't this very strange article been invoked more often? And, indeed, why can't the prime minister simply invoke it at the start of his or her term and then the national assembly can just go home until the next election?

I would be grateful for a simple explanation in either simple English or simple French.

@ Swedish-Parisian,

The appeal of being able to enact unpopular laws which the government thinks are necessary is unmistakable. But I think that there is a reasoning fallacy in your comment—I call this the “Goldilocks” fallacy.

You seem to be making the assumption that anything that the right and left can agree is a bad idea must really be “just right” but I don't see why that’s necessary so, unless you think that “centrists” are basically Platonic Guardians (which, I admit, is how they tend to see themselves—but don't we all?).

Your reasoning would also seem to profoundly anti-democratic and particularly dangerous in a parliamentary system since it would mean that the president has the power to enact a law that a majority of his own party rejects. This is something which would cause the government to fall in a normal parliamentary system thereby allowing the people to decide on the merits of the president’s legislative proposal or, at least, whether they want him or her to continue enough to accept a proposal they don’t particularly like.

Finally, I would just point everybody’s view of which unpopular laws that can’t win a legislative majority should be enacted anyway is different. In the American context, I might be very happy to see a mechanism for Pres. Obama to ram through a single-payer health care law, effective gun control and greater protections for the environment. But I suspect that there are a lot of “centrists” who would say these are bad ideas and should be blocked.

Frankly, I think a lot of the centrist love for anti-democratic things assume that everybody really wants what they want but somehow can't find their way to the political “sweet spot” that is the “center”. I think we'd hear a very different tune from the “centrists” if anti-democratic provisions were being used to take things in a direction that they didn't like. To them I say, if you think your “centrist” ideas are the right one, win some elections and then you’ll be entitled to impose them on the people.

Swedish-Parisian said...


The point of the 49.3 is not that the executive can get everything it wants into law, including those things that are deeply unpopular (actually, the loi Macron is backed by public opinion).

49.3 is just about asking the majority MPs: do you think this law is bad enough that you would rather have the government resign and new elections be called than have this law enforced?

Of course, if this is done too often, there is a growing likelihood that at some point the second alternative (impose new elections) will be chosen by MPs from the majority. So, there is a natural limit to the frequency of this procedure. Since 2008, there is also a constitutional limit: only the finance laws and up to one regular law per year can be passed through 49.3.

All I am saying is that when parties are culturally against the idea of compromise (which is the case in France or the US, but not in Sweden or Germany), it is very difficult to pass reforms that have the support of a majority of the people but deeply divide each side of the political circle. The 49.3, together with the referendum, are ways to solve the deadlock. These procedures are, of course, open to abuse, but, as I already said, many of the reforms passed through 49.3 have been recognized to be good ones with the passage of time.

Mitch Guthman said...

@ Swedish-Parisian,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply which was very helpful in clarifying the situation. So, if I understand the situation surrounding the loi Macron and the invocation of Art 49.3 correctly, we’re basically talking about an act of political kabuki where Valls gives the PS Députées the opportunity to fool the voters by voting against the loi Macron but then also voting against the censure motion.

On the question of the loi Macron, I don’t think it is so much the case that the PS and the left are culturally unwilling to compromise as it is that they are against many parts of Macron’s proposal and, even more importantly, distrustful of Hollande, Valls and Macron and unwilling to pass legislation that is likely to be implemented in bad faith.

I believe that we will continue to disagree about the larger issue of whether there should be an anti-democratic means of pushing through laws that cannot gain the support of a majority of elected legislators. It seems to me that if a law is good, the supporters of that law should make the case to the people rather than simply imposing the law by anti-democratic means and then seeing how things work out. The essence of democracy is that the people rule—if a legislator believe strongly in an unpopular law, he or she should vote to support that law or else make their case to the people.

The people may choose badly but in a republic, they should be able to elect legislators and a president who will act with honesty in accord with the philosophy he presented to the people during the election. If he feel so strongly that circumstances have changed such that he can no longer govern in accordance with what he said during the election, then he should have the decency to call a new election and take his case to the people.