What is France’s article 49.3 and why is it back in the news again?

The controversial political mechanism is often referred to as the ‘nuclear option’ as it exposes the government to the possibility of a vote of no confidence

The article is controversial as some see it as a way to force through legislation without debate or agreement in parliament
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France’s controversial article 49.3, which hit headlines multiple times this year during bitter pension reform debates, is back in the news as the government debates the 2024 budget.

The government is currently working to pass its 2024 budget, le texte sur les finances publiques. One of its stated aims is to reduce the public deficit from a peak of 4.8% of GDP in 2022, to 2.7% of GDP by 2027. This would bring it under the European Union objective of 3%.

However, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has again courted controversy by telling MPs yesterday evening (September 27): “No group is prepared to vote in favour of this text, which is essential to our country. It has already been rejected at first reading. We need this law for our public finances. We can't take the slightest risk.”

She added: “Therefore, on the basis of Article 49 paragraph 3 of the constitution, I am committing my government to the entire public finance bill.”

She said that the bill was a matter of “responsibility”, “sovereignty” and “clarity” and was an important part of the ecological transition and France's European commitments.

Mrs Borne has used the controversial mechanism 12 times, most recently she used it to pass the highly-contested pension reforms in March.

Before then, she used it in October 2022, again to push through the projet de loi de finances for 2023.

Read more: Fury as French PM forces through pension reforms without a vote

What is article 49.3?

Article 49.3 is a political mechanism that can be employed to push legal changes through the Assemblée Nationale or the Senate without requiring a majority vote from the chamber.

The prime minister can use it following discussions with their cabinet (cabinet des ministres).

Why is article 49.3 controversial?

It is controversial because it enables the government to force through a bill without gaining approval for it from parliament.

Depending on what side of the political-power divide you are on, article 49.3 can be seen either as a useful aid to push through important legislation, or a tool that muzzles democratic debate.

It is also often described as the ‘nuclear option’, because its use could cause the collapse of the government if MPs go on to a vote of no confidence in the PM and win.

To be successful, a motion de censure (vote of no confidence) must be signed by 58 MPs - 10% of members – within 24 hours. If the government fails to get an absolute majority - 289 votes or more - in any ‘vote of confidence’ then the prime minister must resign.

So far, Ms Borne has narrowly escaped losing two votes of no confidence motions, following her passing of the pension reforms.

Read more: French PM survives two no-confidence votes over pension reforms

Read more: Pension reforms latest: Will the French government fall?

Why is it controversial and in the news again now?

Ms Borne has said she will use the article to push through her latest budget bill, faced with opposition from rival parties.

The text is being examined during an extraordinary session, so the government will still have article 49.3 at its disposal for the ordinary session that opens next week.

The government can only use 49.3 on one text per ordinary session, except for bills regarding the state budget and the social security budget, for which it can use the article as many times as it wishes.

Upon Ms Borne’s announcement that she would use 49.3, left-wing electoral alliance NUPES (la Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale) immediately announced that it would be tabling a motion de censure in response.

"This is the worst policy ever adopted in our country,” said chair of the left-wing party LFI (La France Insoumise) group Mathilde Panot. “Seventy billion in savings on the backs of people in France between now and 2027. [A vote of no confidence] is the only way to defend ourselves in parliament.

“This text will lead to social and ecological abuse that we cannot accept,” she said.

A motion de censure, or vote of no confidence, must be supported by at least 10% of the Assemblée Nationale to be tabled. It requires an absolute majority (289 deputies) to pass, with absentee and blank ballots counted as ‘against’.

If successful, the prime minister is forced to resign. Since 1958, a motion de censure has been voted 61 times, but only passed once: in 1962 against the then Prime Minister George Pompidou.

Socialist MP Boris Vallaud said: “We have a government that is 49.3 dependent,” in agreement with Green MP Cyrielle Chatelain and PCF (Parti Communiste Français) MP Nicolas Sansu.

"The government needs to realise that it cannot manage France using 49.3,” said Bertrand Pancher, chairman of the independent, centrist LIOT (Libertés, Indépendants, Outre-mer et Territoires) group.

However, the leading opposition party, centre-right Les Républicains, has so far not shown inclination to table a motion.

Why does PM Elisabeth Borne want to use 49.3 this time?

She faces considerable opposition to her finance bill and the bill has already been rejected in the chamber once.

Only the far-right party the RN (Rassemblement National) had suggested that it would abstain in the vote, but the government was reluctant to form an alliance with the RN.

While the law aims to reduce the public deficit to 2.7% of GDP by 2027, it would reduce public debt by just under four percentage points to 108.1% of GDP. This is still well above the European limit of 60%.

The public finance council, le Haut conseil des finances publiques, has criticised the bill, saying it was both “unambitious” and based on “optimistic” growth assumptions.

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