‘Unprofessional, dirty and wild’: French parliament takes up hair discrimination bill

Those sporting Afro-styled hair, blonde or ginger hair, dreads, braids or even balding heads could gain new protections in France, where a lawmaker from the French Caribbean has introduced a bill that would make discrimination based on hair texture, length, colour or style illegal. While some argue the law is unnecessary, others say it will fill a gap in existing legislation tackling discrimination. 

After years of hearing all sorts of derogatory comments from schoolmates about her Afro-styled kinky hair, Kenza Bel Kenadil was met with the same contempt when she entered the job market. At the tender age of 17, she was told at work that her hair was “unprofessional, dirty and wild”.

When she eventually took a job as a hostess at a hotel in southern France, she was shouted at by management. “Either you go home and change hairstyles”, her boss roared, “or don’t come in to work”.

Discrimination based on hair texture, length, colour or style is at the heart of a bill tabled by Olivier Serva, an MP from the LIOT group (Liberties, Independents, Overseas and Territories) from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. His aim is to ensure that hair discrimination becomes punishable by law. First introduced in September 2023, the bill will be debated in the National Assembly this Thursday, March 28.

A ‘historic’ bill

While Serva leads the political battle to end hair discrimination, Bel Kenadil has been waging her own combat online for years. Now 26, she posts videos on social media – some of which have garnered millions of views – to shed light on the issue.

When her boss at the hotel threatened her years ago, she ended up going home “in tears” and tied her hair up in a bun. “I didn’t understand why my hair would have an impact on my professionalism or employability,” she says.

To prevent that such situations continue into the future, Serva is proposing to add the specific mention of hair to the list of discriminations based on physical appearance.

“It is historic,” Serva said on March 18, after the bill was approved for debate by the French Law Commission, whose role it is to prepare all legislative debates in the National Assembly. “[France] is the first country in the world to recognise hair discrimination at a national level.”

Read moreRacist attacks on pop star Aya Nakamura test France’s ability to shine at Paris Olympics

This is almost true. The US is the only other country to have introduced legislation on hair discrimination. A bill known as the Crown Act (“Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”) was passed by the House of Representatives in March 2022. It states that any race-based hair discrimination at work, in public accommodations and against those participating in federally assisted programmes such as housing programmes, is strictly prohibited by law.

The bill, which especially strengthened school and workplace protections for Black women who are disproportionately affected by hair discrimination, was passed in 24 states including New York, California, Arizona and Texas. But to date, federal legislation has been unsuccessful, as Senate Republicans blocked the act from passing in December 2022. 

In the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued a directive in October 2022 on preventing hair discrimination in schools. Aimed at helping “school leaders foster an inclusive environment,” the guidance refers to sections of the Equality Act to ensure institutions are not unlawfully discriminatory in their policies. Though applied to all forms of hair discrimination, there is a focus on race because “research and court cases indicate discrimination … disproportionally affects pupils with Afro-textured hair or hairstyles”.

A legal framework exists – but is it enough?

Back in France, the introductory text for Serva’s hair discrimination bill states that “people who suffer discrimination based on their hair texture, colour or style lack a specific legal framework”.

But not all MPs share his sentiment on the issue, arguing there is already ample legislative recourse to combat discrimination based on physical appearance in France.

“This is a typical example of a bad idea. There is no legal gap,” labour law specialist Eric Rocheblave told French news agency AFP. Under French labour law, “discrimination based on physical appearance is already prohibited” even if there is no “explicit [clause] on hair discrimination”, he said.

If there was a case of discrimination “based on hair, lack of hair, colour, length or appearance, I could link it to existing legislation,” Rocheblave insisted.

Article 225-1 of the national criminal code lists 25 instances that would constitute discrimination prohibited by law, such as sexual orientation or political beliefs. But for advocates of a French law on hair discrimination, the list does not go far enough.

“If it did, we wouldn’t be turned away from jobs because of our hair. We wouldn’t be subjected to [derogatory] comments from colleagues. And the Air France steward wouldn’t have had to take his case to France’s highest appeals court,” Bel Kenadil counters, referring to Aboubakar Traoré, who sued Air France in 2012 for discrimination after he was barred from flights for wearing braids tied back in a bun.

The company said his hairstyle did not conform to the rules in the flight manual for staff, which allowed women but not men to have braided hair in the cabin.

Ten years later, France’s highest appeals court ruled in favour of Traoré. But the decision issued by the court stated that the company policy amounted to gender discrimination, not hair discrimination.

Hair style, colour, length or texture

Even though Article 225-1 states that “distinctions made based on a person’s origins, sex, family status, pregnancy, physical appearance … constitute discrimination”, Serva is set on providing a “necessary legal clarification” by including “haircut, colour, length, or texture”. This precision would then have to be included in clauses of the French Labour Law and Civil Service Code that deal with discrimination.

Because France does not collect data based on race, ethnicity or religion, there are no national studies on the extent of hair discrimination against Black people in France.

But according to a 2023 US study carried out by Dove and LinkedIn, Black women’s hair is “2.5 times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional”. And a UK study from 2009 cited in the introductory text to Serva’s bill found that one blonde woman in three dyed their hair brown to increase their chances of being recruited and to be perceived as “more intelligent” in professional settings.

Serva also said hair discrimination affected balding men in an interview with French radio station France info in April last year, claiming researchers had proven that balding men were “30 percent less likely to be able to climb the ladder in their company”.

A public health issue

MPs from the conservative Les Républicains and far-right National Rally parties have criticised the bill, calling it an “importation of ‘victim logic’ into French law”.

Bel Kenadil says she understands how “one can question the existence of something when one hasn’t been a victim of it”. On the other hand, she adds, “for me, when even one single person is discriminated against, no matter how, that person must be protected”.

In a video posted on her Instagram account, the influencer sports a variety of hairstyles and assures everyone she is “professional”, while the caption reads: “My appearance doesn’t have anything to do with my skills.”

Countless testimonials of people who have been discriminated against because of their hair flood the comments section. “When I was a young student nurse, I had braids put in, and then I was asked if they were clean,” one follower writes. “I was told to straighten my hair for job interviews,” another laments. Other stories beyond the comments section of her Instagram profile have shocked Bel Kenadil. “A person with blonde hair was turned down for a job because her hair colour wasn’t ‘serious enough’,” she says. “A receptionist recorded an exchange in which her employer berated her, saying, ‘In your interview, you were told loose hair or hair tied up, but nicely styled. What is this? It looks like a lion’s mane.’”

The explanatory text accompanying Serva’s hair discrimination bill mentions the importance of self-esteem and personal confidence, but also touches on a significant health factor when it comes to Afro-textured frizzy or kinky hair.

“A person who is unable to wear their hair naturally in a professional or educational setting will either be forced to hide their hair or change it using chemical products,” the text reads. “This is far from harmless. Tight hairstyles can eventually lead to traction alopecia (hair loss from hairstyles that pull on roots), and products used to chemically straighten hair can cause scalp burns.”

2022 study by the US National Institute of Health (NIH) found that women who used chemical hair straightening products were at higher risk of developing uterine cancer than women who did not.

“This is proof that this topic needs to be taken seriously,” Bel Kenadil insists. “I don’t mind hearing that there are more serious issues. But if that is our starting point, we will never make progress on anything.”

This article is a translation of the original version in French. 

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‘Contradictions of Macronism’: French government fights to save face after immigration bill debacle

President Emmanuel Macron’s government vowed on Tuesday to press ahead with a controversial immigration bill, a day after its flagship reform was rejected by lawmakers in a humiliating setback. The political crisis has heaped further pressure on a government that has struggled to pass reforms without a parliamentary majority.

In a surprise move, the French National Assembly voted to back a motion rejecting a controversial immigration bill on Monday without even debating it. The motion, proposed by the Greens, gained support not only from left-wing representatives but also from members of the right-wing Les Républicains and the far-right National Rally

The government’s stunning defeat in parliament prompted opposition politicians to call for its dissolution. Jordan Bardella, the president of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, told BFMTV on Tuesday he was “ready to serve as prime minister”.

The Élysée Palace, meanwhile, has moved fast to try and stop the political fallout. After an emergency ministerial meeting on Tuesday, government spokesperson Olivier Véran announced the formation of a special joint commission aimed at breaking the parliamentary gridlock “as fast as possible”’. The commission will be composed of seven representatives from both houses of parliament and will aim to return the bill to both chambers for a vote, Véran said. 

French government spokesperson Olivier Véran holds a press conference after a cabinet meeting at the presidential Élysée Palace in Paris, on December 12, 2023. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

After months of seeking to secure a majority in the National Assembly for his flagship policy, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin had a lot riding on the legislation’s success. In response to the setback, Darmanin offered his resignation, which Macron rejected.  

Darmanin had actively courted the right for months in an attempt to secure a majority, accepting a substantial rewrite of the bill in the conservative-led Senate. However, the bill presented on Monday in the Assembly bore little resemblance to the one voted on in the Senate, much to the dismay of Les Républicains.

Speaking on TF1 on Monday after the vote, Darmanin acknowledged the defeat. “It is a failure, of course, because I want to provide resources for the police (…) and magistrates to combat undocumented immigration,” he said.

The limits of ‘en même temps’

Macron’s government has touted its proposed immigration law as a way to respond to voter concerns and prevent the far right from monopolising the immigration debate.  

“The president believes it is necessary to respond to what he sees as a public demand, given the multitude of events that have highlighted immigration issues in the news. This explains the government’s desire to show citizens that it takes the initiative and acts,” said Bruno Cautrès, a researcher at the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po Paris (CEVIPOF).

However, Monday’s debacle in the National Assembly has exposed the limitations of the politics of “en même temps” (“at the same time”) – an approach pursued by Macron since 2017, combining policy solutions from both the right and the left wings of French politics.  

What was possible with an absolute majority during Macron’s first term is no longer feasible with a minority government.

According to a poll conducted by Odoxa, 72% of French citizens consider better control of immigration to be the bill’s most important objective. But the French are far from unified on how they want to resolve the system’s issues – mirroring deep divisions between left and right.

While the proposed law is widely perceived as right-leaning, it failed to satisfy both the right and far right, who reject providing work permits to undocumented workers. Simultaneously, it proved too repressive for the left, which opposes restrictions on family reunifications and the introduction of an annual debate on migration quotas.

Politicians are urging Macron’s government to choose a side instead of attempting to please everyone. Olivier Marleix, the head of Les Républicains in the lower house, told French television channel LCI that his party was “ready to vote” if the text is revised to the version voted through by the Senate.  

“We want the government to choose sides: either it’s a right-wing text or a left-wing text, but it can’t be both at the same time.”

Even Macron’s political movement, Renaissance, exhibited internal divisions over the bill. The left wing of Renaissance, led by Sacha Houlié, the chairman of the lower house commission that amended the bill, expressed dissatisfaction with concessions made by Darmanin to the right, particularly regarding the stripping of healthcare rights for undocumented migrants.

Read moreFrench doctors vow to ‘disobey’ bill stripping undocumented migrants of healthcare rights


“We have red lines. It would be irresponsible to go beyond our political DNA … The adoption of the text cannot come at the cost of a division within the majority,” said Houlié in an interview with French Financial daily Les Échos on Sunday.

“It is very difficult to achieve consensus on immigration, which generates a diversity of perspectives and a clear division between right and left,” said Cautres. “There have been many hesitations by the government over the months. The balance is too difficult to find because this is typically the kind of issue where the contradictions of ‘Macronism’ can surface.”  

Fallout for Darmanin – and his colleagues

A day after having his resignation declined, Darmanin seems to have bounced back, for now. On a visit to a police station in the southeastern suburbs of Paris, Darmanin said Tuesday that “whatever path we take”, he wanted “firm measures” to be put in place by the end of the year.

But his contortions throughout the process have left a lasting impression. After expressing satisfaction with the Senate’s version which bore little resemblance to the initial bill, Darmanin had enthusiastically welcomed the version the National Assembly commission extensively revised – prompting critics to describe him as fickle.  

On Tuesday, Les Républicains party chief Eric Ciotti said he would like to work with Prime Minister Élizabeth Borne on the immigration law moving forward, suggesting his party had lost faith in the interior minister.   

“How can we talk to someone (Darmanin) who constantly insults us? It is up to the prime minister to lead this discussion,” he told Europe 1.  

If the new special joint commission fails to reach a breakthrough, it will pose a significant challenge for Borne and her government. If she still intends to adopt the bill, she may find herself compelled to use Article 49.3 – a controversial provision in the French constitution that allows the executive to bypass the National Assembly to pass a law. 

Triggering Article 49.3 for the 21st time in only 18 months would raise the political stakes even higher, particularly after the administration’s controversial use of it in the spring to pass pension reform occasioned protests and disruptive strikes across France that garnered the world’s attention.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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Le Pen’s far right served as mouthpiece for the Kremlin, says French parliamentary report

Dogged by accusations of proximity to the Kremlin, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party had hoped to clear its name by setting up a parliamentary inquiry to investigate foreign interference in French politics. But a draft report on the committee’s findings, which was leaked to the press this week, shows the move backfired spectacularly, finding instead that Le Pen’s policy stances sometimes echo the “official language of Putin’s regime”.

After a six-month inquiry and more than 50 hearings, the cross-party parliamentary inquiry found that the National Rally (RN) party, formerly known as the National Front, had served as a “communication channel” for Russian power, notably supporting Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea, according to the leaked report.  

The text, due to be published next week, was adopted on Thursday by eleven votes to five – to the dismay of the inquiry’s chair and instigator, RN lawmaker Jean-Philippe Tanguy, who promptly dismissed the process as a “farce”.

The vote came just days after Le Pen was grilled by members of the investigation, swearing under oath that she had no ties to the Kremlin while also reiterating her support for Moscow’s takeover of Crimea – which she referred to as a “reattachment”.  

That support is “visibly appreciated in Moscow”, wrote the report’s rapporteur Constance Le Grip, noting that the Russian press had given ample coverage to the far-right leader’s May 24 interview, “echoing with great satisfaction the assertion, in their view reaffirmed by Marine Le Pen, that Crimea is and always has been Russian”.   

Echoing Putin ‘word for word’ 

Twice a runner-up in France’s most recent presidential elections, Le Pen has in the past spoken admiringly of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his nationalist rhetoric. Prior to last year’s invasion – and despite Russian incursions into Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine’s Donbas – she laughed off suggestions that he posed a threat to Europe. 

In her 218-page report, Le Grip, a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling Renaissance party, pointed to a “long-standing” link between Russia and the far-right party co-founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, noting that the “strategy of political and ideological rapprochement” with Moscow had “accelerated” since his daughter became leader of the party in 2011. 

The report details frequent contacts between party representatives and Russian officials, culminating in the warm welcome Le Pen received at the Kremlin ahead of France’s 2017 presidential election, complete with a photo op with Putin. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 24, 2017, just weeks ahead of France’s presidential election. Mikhail Klimentyev, AFP

It also highlights the far-right leader’s “alignment” with “Russian discourse” at the time of Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the year the National Front obtained a loan from a bank close to the Kremlin. 

“All [Le Pen’s] comments on Crimea, reiterated during her inquiry hearing, repeat word for word the official language of Putin’s regime,” Le Grip wrote, noting that the National Rally had fiercely opposed then-president François Hollande’s decision to scrap the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia over its takeover of Crimea.  

The pro-Russian stance “softened” in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the centrist MP conceded, noting that Le Pen and her party had “unambiguously condemned” Russian aggression – though without changing tack on Crimea.    

The Kremlin’s payroll 

Despite Le Pen’s efforts to distance herself from Moscow, the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine exacerbated scrutiny of her party’s links to Russia, handing her opponents a line of attack in the run-up to France’s presidential election later that year. 

During a bruising televised debate ahead of their April 24 presidential run-off, Macron launched a blistering attack on his far-right opponent, accusing her of effectively being on the Kremlin’s payroll owing to her party’s links with a Russian bank. 

“When you speak to Russia, you are not speaking to any foreign leader, you are talking to your banker,” Macron told Le Pen, arguing that her party’s loan from a Russian bank with links to the Kremlin made her “dependent on Vladimir Putin” and incapable of “defending French interests”.  

Le Pen has repeatedly argued that she had no choice but to seek creditors abroad because French banks are reluctant to deal with her party – some on ideological grounds, others due to the party’s chronically unstable finances. 

The controversial loan was once again in the spotlight during her audition last week, a testy, four-hour-long grilling that failed to produce evidence of a political service rendered in exchange for the credit. Likewise, Le Grip’s report dwells at length on the Russian loan, without demonstrating a return of favours. 

“There is nothing, not a shred of evidence that would prove Russian influence over the National Rally,” Le Pen told reporters on Thursday, as rumours about the leaked report began to swirl. “This report passes judgement on my political opinions, not on any form of foreign interference,” she added, blasting a “political trial”. 

>> Read more: Trump, Farage, Le Pen: Why the West’s right wing loves Vladimir Putin


By pushing for an inquiry late last year, the National Rally had hoped to deflect attention from its Moscow ties and put the focus on other parties’ links to foreign powers, whether Russia, the United States or China.  

Among the witnesses summoned to testify was François Fillon, the former conservative prime minister, who was quizzed on his role as an adviser to two Russian oil companies – one of them state-owned – after he quit politics in 2017. The former PM, who stepped down from both positions on February 25, the day after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, testified that he “never took a single cent of Russian money”.  

Other witnesses included the head of the DGSI, France’s internal security agency, who told a closed hearing that French parliamentarians of all stripes were prime targets of Russian espionage.

Despite the National Rally’s best efforts to focus the attention on other parties, the inquiry frequently returned to figures from its own ranks – including EU lawmaker Thierry Mariani, a former conservative minister and longtime Putin admirer who, on a trip to Crimea in 2015, declared its annexation free and fair in line with Le Pen’s own stance on the matter. 

“The inquiry’s immediate political consequence is to highlight, once again, Marine Le Pen’s pro-Russian stance – particularly on the annexation of Crimea,” French daily Le Monde observed on Friday. 

Speaking to the newspaper, Tanguy, the National Rally lawmaker who chaired the inquiry, conceded that he had been “naïve” in expecting another outcome. He also claimed he had been “betrayed” by Le Grip.

As Greens’ lawmaker Julien Bayou quipped, “The (National Rally) launched this inquiry to clear its name, but ended up with a boomerang in the face.”   

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Le Pen’s opposition to pension reform, focus on public order ‘pays off’ in polls

Issued on:

Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally or RN) party hopes to use the national crisis to continue its long ascent in French politics, adopting a balancing act as its strategy. RN opposes President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms along with most of the French public, while presenting itself as the party of order by condemning public disorder.

As hundreds of thousands took to the streets of France for the 10th day of demonstrations on Tuesday, everyone knew Le Pen has been opposed to Macron’s pension reforms – but the far-right politician and her party were conspicuous by their absence.

Le Pen has a habit of turning up at protests when the optics might benefit her – joining for example a major demonstration against anti-Semitism in Paris in 2018. But Le Pen has avoided the huge protests over pension reform, as have other senior RN figures like the party’s de jure leader Jordan Bardella.

When he disrupted French politics with his 2017 presidential victory, Macron ran as someone “neither on the left nor on the right” – a stance characterised by his trademark expression “en même temps” (at the same time). This is the apt phrase to encapsulate Le Pen’s approach to the strikes, as she has distanced herself from the protests while excoriating Macron for his pension reforms and his short-circuiting of parliament to pass the law.

Strategic ambiguity

Le Pen ran against Macron in the 2022 presidential elections opposing his policy of raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, proposing to keep it the same except for lowering it to 60 for those who started work before the age of 20. Over recent months she has called for a referendum on pension reform.

When Macron used the French constitution’s contentious Article 49.3 to evade a parliamentary vote on his pension reforms on March 16 – turning a tussle with the unions into a crisis – Le Pen demanded the dissolution of the National Assembly. She railed against Macron for amplifying the turmoil, telling AFP the following week that the president “chose to give the French people another slap in the face by saying: ‘look, everything that’s gone on will achieve nothing, nothing; there’ll be no dissolution of parliament, no cabinet reshuffle, no U-turn, nothing; we’ll just carry on as if nothing happened’”.

Alongside this fierce opposition to Macron, Le Pen condemned the setting on fire of Bordeaux town hall and a police station in Brittany’s Lorient during the protests on March 23.

Le Pen has also suggested there should be limits to the rubbish collectors’ strike and condemned the refinery blockades that have caused fuel shortages throughout France: “As soon as the rubbish collectors’ strikes causes health problems for the French population, I think the interior minister must intervene to ensure there are no health problems. It’s not possible,” she told BFMTV on March 20. “The same goes for the refineries. Blockades shouldn’t be allowed. […] I tell people they must express their opposition while respecting the law.”

This en même temps stands in sharp juxtaposition to the strategy of NUPES, the bloc of left-wing parties dominated by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed or LFI). RN and NUPES were both beneficiaries of Macron’s malaise in the 2022 parliamentary election campaign – with RN becoming the opposition’s largest single party and NUPES the opposition’s largest inter-party alliance in the National Assembly.

RN and NUPES are at opposite ends of the political spectrum on cultural issues. But they share leftist economic stances couched in populist style – meaning they are competing for many of the anti-system voters who detest Macron’s liberal economics and aloof manner. Whereas RN displays ambivalence, NUPES vociferously backs the protest movement.

During the weeks of caustic parliamentary debate preceding Macron’s use of 49.3, NUPES MPs hurled fierce, sometimes incendiary rhetoric against Macron and his party. One LFI MP even called Macron’s Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt a murderer; Dussopt subsequently described Le Pen as “more republican” than NUPES MPs.

The leftist bloc tried to obstruct Macron’s bill by putting forward nearly 18,000 of the almost 20,500 parliamentary amendments tabled. But RN MPs were a quiet presence; even Macron’s Ensemble (Together) bloc put forward more amendments than they did.

‘Letting NUPES do all the shouting’

RN’s approach to pension reform is a strategy to “create a contrast with NUPES”, noted Sylvain Crépon, a lecturer at the University of Tours specialising in the French far right. “Staying calm while LFI MPs go off on one gives RN an air of managerial legitimacy.”

Since her party’s seismic breakthrough in the legislative polls last year, giving it 88 MPs compared to eight in the previous vote, Le Pen’s strategy has moved from the “de-demonisation” of her party to “normalisation” – a shift illustrated by her rule that all male RN MPs must wear a tie in the chamber

“Le Pen herself has been pretty much invisible from the debate, beyond making very few contributions, saying the retirement age should be kept where it is,” said Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at Nottingham University. “She’s letting NUPES do all the shouting and screaming while she sits back and lets them do all the work for her.”

Polls show RN is the party benefiting most from France’s crisis. RN’s leadership seems “trustworthy” on pensions for 40 percent of the population, the best score for any party, according to a Harris Interactive poll published on March 22. If early parliamentary elections took place, RN would gain the highest vote share at 26 percent, seven points up from their performance last time, according to an Ifop poll for Le Journal de Dimanche published on March 26.

“Le Pen’s strategy has paid off in terms of broad public appeal,” Smith put it.

On paper, her en même temps could be a difficult balancing act given that RN’s two core constituencies – bourgeois voters near the southeastern Mediterranean coast and working-class voters in the deindustrialised north – have divergent class interests and attitudes to the upheaval over economic reform.

“There is an uneasiness there about the strikes amongst that southeastern constituency; many traditional right-wing and far-right voters don’t like it,” Smith observed.

“But it’s not very difficult to square by saying the troublemakers are just anarchist black blocs, regardless of whether or not that’s the case,” Smith continued. “So keeping those two constituencies together is not so problematic for RN at the moment. It could well be a problem if they were elected.”

At the very least, Le Pen has four more years in the comfort of opposition before the 2027 presidential polls. But she certainly seems to think the pension reform crisis will benefit her – repeating over the past weeks of turmoil the same mantra: “RN are the real alternative! After Emmanuel Macron, it’ll be us!”

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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After Macron’s use of ‘nuclear option’ on unpopular pension reform, what’s next?

Several consequences could follow the French government’s use of Article 49.3 of the constitution to pass President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform without a vote in the National Assembly on Thursday. They include no-confidence motion against the government, the dissolution of the Assembly, and ongoing street protests. FRANCE 24 breaks down the options for the opposition and the president.

After Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne on Thursday invoked the power inscribed in Article 49.3 of the constitution allowing the government to pass bills without a vote in the lower-house Assembly, opponents of pension reform still have cards to play. They hope to force the government to back down before the enactment of the controversial law, which includes a hike in the retirement age from 62 to 64.

In the words of a Paris-region deputy and member of the left-wing NUPES (New Ecological and Social People’s Union) coalition, opposition lawmakers hope to use “all the means at their disposal” to sink pension reform. These include supporting organised protests, tabling a no-confidence vote in the government, launching a referendum to potentially kill the reform, and appealing to France’s Constitutional Council.

A vote of no confidence in the government

In the wake of Borne’s citation of 49.3 as opposition deputies sang La Marseillaise, France’s national anthem, and held placards saying “no!” to a retirement age of 64, deputies from two parliamentary groups tabled votes of no confidence in the cabinet she leads. The first came from the LIOT group (for Libertés, Indépendants, Outre-mer et Territoires) composed of centrists and moderates, and the second came from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National or RN).

Cosigned by the leftist NUPES group, the LIOT group’s multiparty motion is giving the government more cause for concern. It could receive support from other members of the left, the far right and even those members of the center-right Les Républicains (LR), who want to bring down the government and its pension reform. The small LIOT group thus finds itself at a pivot point amid opposition to Macron from both right and the left.

Votes of no confidence must be tabled within 24 hours of the government’s triggering of Article 49.3, and debate may then begin after 48 hours, at a time set by an Assembly body that consists of deputies in various leadership positions. Debates on the two tabled no-confidence votes will begin in the Assembly on Monday, March 20 at 4pm, Paris time. A successful vote of no confidence must gain support from an absolute majority of deputies – 287, at present – which prevents a simple majority aided by abstentions from toppling a government.

With this requirement, it is unlikely that a vote will pass. Even with the support of all 149 deputies in the NUPES, 88 in the RN and 20 in LIOT, the motion would fall short by 32 votes. To overcome this deficit, more than half the Les Républicains deputies would also need to support it, despite party president Éric Ciotti’s opposition to such a course of action. That means a successful vote would need the support of unlikely defectors from Macron’s own Renaissance party or his parliamentary allies in Modem and Horizons. 

If either of the no-confidence votes were to succeed, the pension reform law the government passed would be rejected. Macron could then opt to appoint a new prime minister, or retain his confidence in Borne – and, in that case, dissolve the National Assembly, a move that French president Charles de Gaulle made in 1962 during the only such vote that passed since the founding of France’s Fifth Republic.

>> The Debate: French government overrides parliament over pensions, at what cost?

Dissolving the National Assembly

Macron has mentioned dissolving the Assembly as a recurring threat since last June’s legislative elections left his party with only a relative majority. It remained a threat on the eve of the forced passage of pension reform, in the hope of getting Les Républicains lawmakers who were reluctant to vote for the bill to fall in line.

The idea of following in the footsteps of de Gaulle by dissolving parliament after a no-confidence vote would no doubt please Macron. Even some of his supporters see new legislative elections as a solution to the post-49.3 situation. An anonymous Renaissance deputy said that the build-up to the use of 49.3 amounts to “a crash. We need a dissolution” – which, with an ensuing elections victory, would boost Macron’s political capital.

But the manoeuvre is risky. In 1997, then-president Jacques Chirac tried it and lost his majority in the Assembly. The same thing could happen to Macron in 2023 should he hazard the move.

It is difficult to predict which party would prevail in fresh legislative elections. The NUPES leftists could capture many more seats by capitalising on the popular movement against pension reform. But observers warn that the hard-right RN, thriving on the growing discontent in French society, would be the most likely winner. The Assembly could then be more fragmented than ever, making the existence of a majority unlikely.

More protests and strikes

The next stage in the pension reform saga will also play out in the streets. After the government’s decision to use 49.3, France’s group of trade unions met and denounced “a denial of democracy” and the passage of the bill “by force”.

“Today, it is this exemplary social movement that demonstrates that the president of the Republic and his government have failed before the National Assembly,” the eight main French unions wrote in their statement.

The inter-union group called for “local rallies” over the weekend of March 18 and a ninth day of strikes and protests across France on Thursday, March 23.

After weeks of peaceful mobilisations, the street protests could intensify in a way that escapes the control of the unions. Several spontaneous demonstrations took place in French cities after Borne used 49.3, leading to multiple incidents and arrests.

>> French unions see threat of Yellow Vest rerun over Macron’s retirement push

Towards a popular referendum?

The NUPES leftists prefer to reserve several options in their fight against Macron’s pension reform. If a vote of no confidence fails, launching a type of referendum called a référendum d’initiative partagée (a shared-initiative referendum, or RIP) could be another option.

A constitutional tool available to parliamentarians, the RIP allows for a popular referendum to be held on a bill if 185 French lawmakers (one-fifth of the combined 577 lower-house deputies and 348 upper-house senators) supports it. An RIP must also be supported by 4.87 million French voters, or a tenth of the electorate, whose signatures must be collected within nine months.

The procedure would allow the pension plan’s opponents “to block the implementation of reform for nine months”, according to Socialist Deputy Valérie Rabault, a vice president of the Assembly. But “if an RIP is triggered” on [the question of] pensions, “it must be before the enactment of the law”, she said.

However, according to French Communist Party Deputy Stéphane Peu, who along with Rabault is a member of NUPES, the left-wing coalition has had the support of the necessary 185 lawmakers since March 14, two days before Borne invoked 49.3. Peu’s bill will propose that “the retirement age cannot exceed 62”, he said.

The Constitutional Council

The RIP is not the last option for opponents if the no-confidence votes fail to pass. “There would have been several appeals to the Constitutional Council against this text had it passed by vote,” said Charles de Courson, a LIOT deputy, on March 14.

Mathilde Panot, the leader of the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed, LFI) party in the Assembly, has promised that the left will appeal to the council. The NUPES will argue that the reform, which was inserted into the social security budget, is a legislative rider, since the text addresses more than just finances.

Left-wing deputies intend to rely on the opinion of France’s Conseil d’État (Council of State), which had warned the government of a risk that certain measures in its pension reform plan, as well as the plan’s lack of clear calculations, were unconstitutional.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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