When Charles De Gaulle introduced France’s Fifth Republic in 1958, he spoke of the need for a “national referee” who would “exist above political quarrels”. The result was the creation of the most powerful presidency in the democratic world, entrusted with a litany of authoritarian powers and largely unconstrained by a marginalised parliament.
It is one of those autocratic powers that has sparked the gravest political crisis of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. On 16 March, lacking a majority in parliament, Macron invoked article 49.3 of the Fifth Republic’s constitution, which empowers the government to force through laws without a vote in parliament, in order to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The decision has backfired. On 23 March a million people across the country marched in protest, both at the reform and the way it was passed. Demonstrations are increasingly turning violent: in Bordeaux protesters set fire to the city hall, while in Paris small groups fought with police. A planned visit by King Charles was postponed, probably because the president's advisers were worried about how Macron meeting a monarch in the Palace of Versailles would look.