From the Newsdesk

Going Nuclear: The Pros and Cons of the Quarante-Neuf-Trois

Struggling to garner support for his pension reform bill, mired in endless strikes and protests, Emmanuel Macron recently decided to bypass Parliament. How? The prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, activated Article 49.3 of the French Constitution – a “nuclear legislative weapon.”
© Antoine Moreau-Dusault

Since President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party lost its absolute majority in the lower parliamentary chamber in June 2022, his administration has struggled to push ahead with its legislative program. On at least four occasions, the main opposition parties have called a vote of no-confidence in an effort to oust the government and bring on a general election. But each time they have failed because the prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, has rolled out what is known popularly as the “nuclear legislative weapon” or le quarante-neuf trois (literally, “the forty-nine three”).This fast-track provision makes it possible to bypass the National Assembly by forcing a confidence vote. It is also a game of chicken because the incumbent administration bets its survival on a successful outcome.

Enshrined in the third paragraph of Article 49 of the French Constitution, the procedure was introduced in 1958 to tackle the political instability that had plagued the Third (1870-1940) and Fourth Republics (1946-1958) and stymied whole swathes of legislation. In practice, if a bill under debate is facing defeat or deadlock in the National Assembly, the prime minister can “activate the 49.3” and commit the government’s responsibility to its passage. Immediately afterwards, debating is suspended and the bill is deemed adopted by decree unless the opposition files a no-confidence motion within 24 hours. If the motion passes, the legislature is dissolved and a general election has to be called. This radical measure was originally intended for legislation relating to financial or social security issues, which had often plagued Fourth Republic governments. Since 2008 it can also be used once a year for one other bill.

Given the risk of political collapse, it would be fair to think that this constitutional weapon was rarely used. In fact, Article 49.3 has been triggered 100 times since it came into force, mainly by left-wing prime ministers (56 versus 33 for the right). This has resulted in 59 no-confidence votes, none of which has succeeded in toppling a government. In principle, the incumbent administration will not lose because different opposition parties are usually loath to vote for the others’ motions. Nevertheless, dangers do exist when party leaders engage in brinkmanship or when, as at present, the government has only a slim majority. In late October, when the left-wing Nupes opposition bloc called a no-confidence vote on the government’s budget, the far-right Rassemblement National created surprise and consternation in equal measure by joining forces with its ideological foe. The motion came within 50 votes of succeeding.

Like its nuclear namesake, the 49.3 is devastatingly effective. But it is also widely condemned. One of the main criticisms is that the procedure is undemocratic because it deprives elected representatives of the chance to have a say on crucial issues in the nation’s legislative assembly. This can create an authoritarian climate that ultimately leads to demonstrations and industrial unrest. In 2006, for example, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin wielded the 49.3 to force through a controversial law on youth employment. His decision resulted in three months of increasingly violent protests that ultimately led to the bill being withdrawn. Moreover, it is easier for politicians to speak out against Article 49.3 if they are in the opposition camp. When Mr. de Villepin detonated the nuclear option, the socialist representative François Hollande slammed the whole procure as “undemocratic” and a “denial of democracy.” After he became president six years later, however, his government used it six times.

Another seemingly inevitable outcome is a sharp fall in prime ministerial popularity. Research has shown that an incumbent’s public approval rating declines by approximately one percentage point in the three months following implementation of the 49.3 procedure, similar to the effect of a one standard deviation decline in economic growth.

Once Article 49.3 has been unleashed, it is hard to rein back. Considering President Macron’s lack of an absolute majority and the constant infighting and grandstanding of his opponents, le quarante-neuf trois is likely to become a news mainstay in the months and years ahead. And it might even claim its first governmental scalp.

Note: All data as of March 22, 2023.

Article published in the December 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.