Contrary to my (low-confidence) expectations, the Conseil Constitutionnel approved the reform bill with only minor changes (removing sweeteners that had been added to mollify the opposition in full knowledge that they would probably be invalidated). The CC also dismissed the petition for a referendum (on somewhat ludicrous grounds). There is still one more petition for a referendum that will be judged on May 3, but it, too, is almost certain (as I now see it) to be rejected. And Macron has promulgated the new law. So what now?
Resistance to the bill had let up somewhat, to judge by the diminishing number of demonstrators, but that may have been because the decision of the CC was still pending. Now that the Council has dashed the last best hopes of the opposition, we can expect a short-term increase in demonstration turnout as well as potential for a sharp increase in violence from both “black blocs” and police.
But my deeper sense is that resignation has begun to set in. Opposition was driven not so much by the provisions of the legislation (which, truth be told, hardly amount to the tyrannical oppression alleged by some of the fiercer opponents) as by growing discontent with top-down government led by technocrats with minimal civil-society input, rejection of the president’s often abrasive style, and avoidance of robust democratic debate (which, while fully constitutional, proved to be a politically provocative course). All of this was compounded by government ineptitude, miscommunication, and self-isolation. The perceived weakness of the formerly Jupiterian regime has emboldened the ambitious and dampened the enthusiasm of many who believed that Macron represented a new beginning for a worn-out Fifth Republic.
Instead, there is an ominous sense that said Fifth Republic may have run its course. The success of a presidential regime like the French always depended on what its founder thought of as an encounter between leader and people. The “Gaullist myth,” as the historian Sudhir Hazareesingh has called it, was always just that–in large part myth. But a myth embraced by a multitude is a source of democratic legitimacy, and de Gaulle knew that when the myth evaporated, it was time to go, so he drew the only possible conclusion from a lost referendum vote and bade farewell to the regime he had created.
Macron, for all his intellectual acuity, has thus far stubbornly refused to see the unfolding of the pension reform saga as a portent of the final collapse of the myth that brought him into office. He is determined to hang on. But since his tenacity is profoundly at odds with the structuring logic of the regime he heads, the result is likely to be intensified talk of the need for regime change. With four years to go and little prospect of meaningful legislation in the foreseeable future, debate about the flaws of the Fifth Republic itself could well come to dominate public discourse.
This could be a good thing. Such a debate could be a way for new parties to emerge around different ideas about how public life should be organized and how the balance of power among executive, administration, legislature, and courts needs to be altered to give people who now feel deprived of voice a sense that they are effective participants in, rather than mere spectators of, government. Optimism is not my natural condition, but I’m hoping that some good may emerge from this otherwise depressing episode.