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Why is there talk of a vote of confidence for France’s new PM?

Boris Johnson recently survived a no confidence vote, and Élisabeth Borne has decided to forgo one. We explain the different systems in France and the UK

French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne has refused to hold a confidence vote, while UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a no confidence vote in June Pic: Gerard Bottino, Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock

France’s Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne will not offer French MPs the chance of a confidence vote (vote de confiance) when she reveals her political programme in parliament tomorrow (July 6).

It is the first time since 1993 that a French prime minister has not offered this vote. 

But this vote of confidence should not be confused with the UK’s vote of no confidence, which was tabled against the country’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson on June 7 this year.

France’s vote de confiance is, in fact, largely symbolic and is optionally put forward by the prime minister. 

This mechanism has a similar name to the UK’s no confidence vote and both votes can lead to governments being disbanded, but they are fundamentally different. 

The UK’s vote of no confidence is closer to the equivalent of what in France is called a motion de censure

We look into these different motions in the UK and France and explain what they are and how they work. 

France’s vote de confiance: What it is and how it works

When a new government is named, as it was yesterday (July 4), the head of government – the prime minister – sets out her political programme in parliament. The presentation of this programme is called the ‘discours de politique générale’. 

Traditionally, the prime minister allows MPs in the lower house of parliament, the Assemblée nationale, a confidence vote on this programme to give them the chance to show their support or not.  

This vote is optional but is usually offered as a way to legitimise the prime minister’s choice of government. However, Ms Borne will not offer this vote, France’s newly appointed government spokesman Olivier Véran confirmed yesterday (July 4). 

This is because the ruling coalition fared rather poorly during the legislative elections in June with President Emmanuel Macron’s Ensemble ! alliance winning 245 seats, 44 short of an absolute majority.

Read more: What is France’s Assemblée nationale and how does it work?

Read more: French politics: President Macron is in office but he is not in power

If Ms Borne does offer up a confidence vote on her political programme and does not receive a majority of backers, she will be obliged to disband the government and step down. Then, Mr Macron would have to nominate a new prime minister who would then have to name a new government. 

French political historian Jean Garrigues told Le Figaro that seeing as this confidence vote is optional, it would be a “useless risk” to call for one. 

“Given the make-up of the Assemblée nationale, she is not guaranteed to obtain the necessary number of votes,” he said. 

In total, seven other French prime ministers have in the past decided to skip this traditional confidence vote: 

Georges Pompidou (1966, 1967), Maurice Couve de Murville (1968), Pierre Messmer (1972), Raymond Barre (1976) and also three of François Mitterrand’s prime ministers Michel Rocard, Édith Cresson and Pierre Bérégovoy who served successively between 1988 and 1993. 

Ms Borne is the first prime minister since Pierre Bérégovoy to forgo the confidence vote. 

To summarise, if you are reading a lot about a vote de confiance in French media this week then do not think that it is the same as what the UK’s Mr Johnson faced in June. It is instead a more symbolic vote. 

France’s no confidence vote: the motion de censure

A closer French equivalent to the UK’s vote of no confidence is the motion de censure. 

This vote can be proposed by opposition MPs if they feel that a government should be disbanded. 

The president of opposition party La France insoumise (LFI), Mathilde Panot, has already declared that LFI will table a motion de censure against Ms Borne after her decision to not hold a vote de confiance

For this vote to be held, it must be presented by at least one tenth of the MPs in the Assemblée nationale – meaning 58 people. 

In order for it to pass, it must be backed by 289 MPs – an absolute majority.

If it is backed by a sufficient number of MPs, the prime minister must present this vote of no confidence to the president, who can accept the dissolution of the government or not. 

Since the start of the Fifth Republic in France in 1958, 58 motions de censure have been filed against French governments. 

Only one succeeded. 

In 1962, French Prime Minister Georges Pompidou lost a motion de censure after the president at that time, Charles de Gaulle, took the decision to introduce – via a referendum – the election of French presidents by direct universal suffrage. 

President de Gaulle refused to dissolve the government after the no confidence vote, eventually dissolving parliament instead. 

A more recent example of a motion de censure is when President Macron’s former prime minister Édouard Philippe faced a double no confidence vote in 2018, tabled by MPs from the right and left of the political spectrum. 

It came after Mr Macron’s former bodyguard Alexandre Benalla was accused of assaulting two protestors. Mr Benalla was later given a three-year jail sentence, two of which were suspended with the final year served wearing an electronic tag. 

Confidence motions in the UK

There are two types of confidence motions in the UK: a confidence vote and a no confidence vote. 

A government may choose to call a confidence vote on itself to shore up support and put off dissenting backbenchers. This is very rare. 

No confidence votes are more common. These can be brought about either by opposition MPs or by MPs of the ruling party, as was the case last month when Conservative MPs got enough support to hit Prime Minister Johnson with a no confidence vote. 

Within the Conservative party, 15% of MPs have to submit a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee, a group of all backbench Conservative MPs, for a no confidence vote to be held. 

For it to succeed, a simple majority of MPs in the House of Commons have to back it – this means 50% +1. If it does succeed, the prime minister is obliged to disband the government or call a new general election. If it does not, a new no confidence vote cannot be called for another year. 

The last time that a no confidence vote succeeded was in 1979 when the minority Labour government of James Callaghan was defeated by one vote. 

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