The term “multilateralism” is not specifically elaborated in Russian international relations theory. For a long time, it has remained in the shadow of the much more popular term “multipolarity,” although the latter is gradually being replaced in Russian literature by the term “polycentrism.” Sometimes, it seems that “multilateralism” and “multipolarity” are used in Russian scientific and political discourse as synonyms, both reflecting the democratisation of the international system that began with the collapse of the “unipolar world” at the beginning of the century.
Yet, “multipolarity” is obviously not the same as “multilateralism.” The former denotes pluralism in the distribution of power in the international system among three or more independent decision-making centres, while the latter describes a possible way for these centres to collaborate. Without multipolarity, there can be no multilateralism, since a unipolar or bipolar system simply does not provide enough actors for multipolar interaction. But multipolarity does not necessarily imply multilateralism, since relations within a multipolar system can theoretically come down to a set of bilateral relations between individual centres of power.
In the United States, at least prior to the Trump administration, multilateralism was formally considered the preferred foreign policy practice, especially in relations with allies. For example, NATO is a multilateral military-political alliance and the North American free trade area (NAFTA, recently superseded by USMCA) is a multilateral trade and economic integration initiative. Yet, the United States has acted as the undisputed leader in all multilateral agreements, which has raised questions as to how multilateral these agreements really are. As for Donald Trump, he has expressed doubt as to whether multilateralism is an effective means for promoting American interests at all, preferring, wherever possible, to negotiate with partners in a bilateral format.
Unlike the United States, EU countries consider multilateralism not only a convenient format for foreign policy but one of its fundamental principles. This principle is embedded in many official EU documents, including the Treaty on the European Union (Article 21). The commitment to multilateralism was once again reaffirmed last spring when France and Germany announced the creation of the international Alliance for Multilateralism, already joined by about fifty countries from various regions of the world. “Multilateralism” in European political discourse is, however, often little more than a uniting slogan, representing one of the basic values of the European Union that distinguishes the EU from other global players who prefer a unilateral foreign policy (USA, Russia, China).
That is why the essay Multilateralism: Variants, Potential, Constraints and Conditions for Success, authored by one of the pillars of modern German foreign policy thought, Professor Hanns Maull, and published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), merits careful reading. For over twenty years, Hanns Maull has held the Foreign Policy and International Relations Chair at the University of Trier in Germany and is now a professor at the Johns Hopkins University in Bologna. Let us discuss the main points of his essay.
Interpretations of the Term
The author of the essay offers the reader three levels of understanding of multilateralism. The first level of understanding, designated by Maull as Multilateralism I, reduces this concept to diplomatic interaction between three or more states (or other actors) in international politics. This understanding does not present any difficulties or controversies: multilateralism comes down to formal issues and is contrasted to unilateral and bilateral formats. Nor does this understanding offer any substantive content: participants in the multilateral format can pursue any goals and base their cooperation on any principles that suit them. From the essay, we may conclude that, for example, the three agreements made in the second half of the 18th century between Russia, Prussia and Poland on the partition of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth fall well under the definition of multilateral diplomacy, since all three parties participated in all the agreements.
Modern German foreign policy employs a broader interpretation of multilateralism, designated by the author as Multilateralism II. The essence of the German understanding is that multilateralism, in addition to formal criteria, should also include substantive criteria. Therefore, it includes interaction of more than two actors with action within the framework of international organizations, oriented towards the principles and norms and carried out in accordance with the rules and regulations that underlie those organisations (such as, for example, the United Nations Charter). In this version, a multilateral foreign policy stands not only for a specific diplomatic approach but also for a commitment to certain principles, substantive goals and methods of foreign policy. Ultimately, we are talking about a limited set of common values that do not exclude conflicts between individual participants. A possible example of Multilateralism II is probably the way European countries cooperated within the framework of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in the 1970s and 80s, while maintaining a mostly competitive relationship between two different social and political systems.
Historically, this understanding of multilateralism is closely connected with the concept of the Western liberal world order, the foundations of which were laid in 1945 and which began to claim universality after 1990. Yet, this does not mean that Multilateralism II must inevitably disappear along with the decaying liberal world order. It may be based on other values and principles; the main element is the creation of common norms in world politics, to be agreed in a multilateral format. In fact, multilateral mechanisms should enable us to agree on common norms and values, a universally desirable world order and regulatory practices acceptable to each individual participant in multilateral negotiations.
Multilateralism III represents a more radical understanding of the term. Whereas the main task of Multilateralism II is to achieve the broadest possible compromise on the basic issues in the regulation of international life, despite significant differences in the interests of the participants, Multilateralism III is to find “right” or “appropriate” solutions to the problems of world politics, i.e., achieve a transition to “effective global governance.” If Multilateralism II proceeds from what the participants in the system think achievable, Multilateralism III operates in terms of what is desired and what should be done. In the first case, we are talking about a tactical alliance of players with very different aspirations and, in the second case, about a strategic partnership of like-minded parties who interact with one another to achieve common goals.
Accordingly, in order to move from Multilateralism II to Multilateralism III, two complex problems must be resolved. First, tactical allies should become strategic partners, that is, agree on a general picture of a desirable future, on practical steps to make this future possible, on an equitable distribution of the burden and costs associated with this transit, etc. Second, international institutions must be established that are capable of ensuring effective coercion of independent players in the international system to implement multilaterally adopted decisions. As history shows, for example, in the case of multilateral efforts to combat climate change, even a general agreement on the principles, values and goals of cooperation does not necessarily guarantee that the international community will move towards its stated goals.
Why is a “Multilateral” Foreign Policy Necessary?
Proponents of multilateralism (any of the above variants) rely in their reasoning on three interrelated assumptions: regarding the magnitude of impending global challenges; the persistence of a trend toward power diffusion in world politics; and the great potential of multilateral cooperation.
The first assumption, according to Maull, needs no detailed justification. Some of the global challenges — from climate change and a possible environmental disaster to uncontrolled development of new technologies and the threat of a global nuclear war — call into question the continued existence of mankind. Another thing is equally obvious: many of these challenges place extremely high demands on the quality of global governance, including not only cooperation between states but also involvement of non-state players — private businesses, international organisations and civil society. Constructive co-operation, even between such large states as China and the United States, will not in itself suffice to solve the problems. Within the framework of today’s predominantly Westphalian international system, achieving a new quality of global governance does not appear feasible.
Power diffusion is likely to continue. Consolidation of the world based on a revival of a unipolar or even rigid bipolar system seems unlikely. Nation-states will remain the main players in world politics, with preservation (at least formally) of the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. At the same time, the number and international activity of non-state players will continue to grow, undermining the hierarchy in world politics and economics. Traditional formats of international cooperation will increasingly prove ineffective and the need for complex new multilateral and multi-level formats will grow. A multitude of multilateral schemes crop up in international relations, which could not have existed even theoretically throughout human history.
Proponents of multilateralism suggest that the transition to a new level of global governance will make it possible to use resources more efficiently, streamline strategies and priorities, avoid duplication of efforts, etc. Maull, however, entertains serious doubts about this assumption. First, transferring even some of the functions of national states to multilateral structures is already difficult since the states themselves have long become much less omnipotent on their own territory. Second, the effectiveness of existing multilateral structures — from the United Nations and the European Union to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — is also controversial. Global governance based on multilateralism has yet to prove its worth.
Multilateral Diplomacy: Benefits and Challenges
The obvious advantage of multilateral diplomacy, according to the author, is its inclusive nature: only multilateralism allows the broad coalitions necessary for resolving complex problems to be formed. In addition, multilateralism enhances the international legitimacy and sustainability of any agreements. Of course, this only applies to situations when the multilateral coalition is sufficiently representative, that is, when the problem is solved bearing in mind the positions and interests of all significant players.
On the other hand, it is precisely these features of multilateral diplomacy that, in some cases, turn out to be its downfall. It can be difficult to focus the agenda in multilateral negotiations, as each of the participants has its own priorities. Multilateral negotiations usually require more time and resources than bilateral ones, not to mention unilateral actions. Procedural issues are much more difficult to negotiate in a multilateral format than a bilateral one.
Decisions made following multilateral negotiations often turn out to be half-hearted, fuzzy and declarative, as negotiators focus on the search for the “lowest common denominator,” allowing them to keep the support of the maximum number of contracting parties. Multilateral negotiations can be blocked by any of the participants. There is an inverse proportion between legitimacy and effectiveness: high legitimacy is achieved at the cost of low effectiveness and vice versa. The same correlation usually applies to the time needed to reach an agreement and its stability: agreements concluded in a scramble are generally less stable and reliable than ones resulting from lengthy negotiations.
As a general rule, we can conclude that multilateral and representative formats have no alternative when it comes to fundamental systemic problems in world politics or economics. Even so, when it comes to the need to respond quickly to a sudden challenge, the actions of small groups of players who are more interested in solving the problem may be more effective. Of course, you have to pay with a part of legitimacy for efficiency and effectiveness.
There are many other problems and difficulties associated with multilateralism. For example, it is not entirely clear how to distribute the responsibilities and burdens associated with implementing an agreement “fairly” among all the participants in multilateral negotiations. The question of what measures should be taken with respect to those who take a selective approach to multilateral agreements or even sabotage their implementation is also not a simple one.
In multilateral negotiations, mutual confidence between participants is more critical than in bilateral negotiations because there is always a fear that groups of participants might coordinate their negotiating positions behind the scenes so that the others will have to face a consolidated opposition promoting unilateral interests in a coordinated manner. Digressing for a moment from the discussion of Maull’s essay, we may note that it was precisely such a problem that arose in the work of the Russia–NATO Council, established at the NATO–Russia Summit in Rome in May 2002. The Russian side proceeded from the Council becoming a fully-fledged multilateral organisation with each participant acting in its individual capacity. Western countries turned the Council into a mechanism for bilateral cooperation between NATO and Russia, de facto abandoning the principle of multilateralism. A similar situation arose over time in the Group of Eight, after it was joined by Russia. On many fundamental issues, Moscow was forced to confront a combined coalition of the other seven members of the G8. The transformation of a formally multilateral format into a virtually bilateral one significantly reduced the effectiveness of the two negotiation platforms, both for Russia and, ultimately, for its Western partners.
Conditions for Effective Multilateralism
Given the above problems, we can formulate several conditions that might allow multilateral negotiation to be successful. These conditions relate mainly to the approaches and expectations of negotiators. First, participants should be interested in achieving sustainable results, not winning a diplomatic “victory” over partners by securing tactical advantages. A diplomatic “victory” of this kind could undermine the agreement at some point and turn it into a defeat.
Second, participants must be orientated on compromise, including a willingness to make concessions. Practice shows that violation of a reasonable balance between concessions by the parties inevitably undermines the stability of the agreement.
Third, negotiators should proceed from the principle of “diffuse reciprocity,” that is, be prepared to demonstrate solidarity with partners in difficult situations, sacrificing their immediate interests for the sake of longer-term gain, if necessary.
Fourth, negotiators must have “internal legitimacy”, that is, be able to make commitments on behalf of those they represent. This means that only strong leaders with broad political support in their own countries can be successful negotiators.
Fifth, implementation mechanisms should be identified from the outset. If these conditions are not met, multilateral negotiations will prove useless at best and harmful at worst, acting as a smokescreen masking the unilateral actions of certain players.
The author emphasises that the success of multilateral diplomacy paradoxically depends on the willingness of participants to make unilateral and bilateral steps. Practice shows that, behind any success of multilateral efforts, there is always a leader or group of leaders who take the initiative in determining the agenda, prioritising its issues and maintaining the negotiation schedules, as well as acting as mediators in reaching a compromise. The multilateral format does not cancel out and will not replace the bilateral format but it is a necessary addition to or prerequisite for the latter. An example of such a combination is the bilateral German–French negotiations on creating the Alliance for Multilateralism.
Alliance for Multilateralism
The Alliance for Multilateralism, as an informal association of countries promoting multilateral approaches to resolving international problems, remains a flagship foreign policy project of Germany. Although this initiative has a very brief history, its work allows us to draw some conclusions about the possibilities and limitations of Multilateralism in world politics.
First of all, the initial meeting of interested countries was held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2019 by seven states: Germany, France, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Ghana and Singapore. These countries are very different in size, economic development and political systems. For example, according to the Freedom House classification, Mexico and Singapore are among the “partly free” countries. So we may conclude that the desire for multilateralism (perhaps even in the format of Multilateralism II) is not a feature inherent exclusively in liberal democracies.
In addition, the first practical steps made by the Alliance confirm the assumption that multilateral structures tend to focus on relatively uncontroversial, technical issues, where there is more chance of developing a common position. One such issue was the Alliance’s proposal to ban lethal autonomous weapons systems (even though the countries most actively working on such systems did not participate in the Alliance). More complex issues, such as freedom of trade, the future of international law and international organisations, human rights, etc., were left on the periphery of the Alliance’s attention. We should add that most of the decisions taken by the Alliance are to be implemented by the interested players on a voluntary basis.
Such a choice of priorities raises the fundamental question of whether the transition to a new level of global governance can go from bottom to top — from specific, depoliticised and relatively simple issues to more complex, sensitive and politically loaded problems, or whether it should go from top to bottom — from general, politically determined, fundamental problems to technical details. If we assume that a bottom-up transition is feasible, the Alliance’s work should be welcomed and supported in every way. If the only possible transition is top-down, then the Alliance’s work may even be counterproductive because it creates the illusion of moving forward where, in fact, no progress is being made. Replacing strict international legal rules with voluntarily assumed obligations, for all its attractiveness, can erode the foundations of the modern world order without creating any effective alternative.
It Is Not That Simple
The essay by Hanns Maull leaves us with the feeling that only the very first steps have been taken so far in studying the complex problems of multilateralism and the number of questions that arise significantly exceeds the number of available answers. In any case, it seems obvious that multilateralism (just like, for example, multipolarity or polycentricism) can in no sense be considered a universal mechanism for resolving all international problems. The multilateral format, as the author rightly notes, has many significant drawbacks: it is cumbersome, complex, slow and often has disappointing results. Multilateralism cannot and will not replace the bilateral approach and unilateral foreign policy actions.
Even so, one may agree with the author that multilateralism has its obvious comparative advantages. It would be a mistake to ignore or downplay such features of multilateralism as democratism, representativeness and the legitimacy and sustainability of the results of multilateral negotiations. Multilateralism is a chance for relatively weak players to make their voices heard and their interests taken into account. It is also an opportunity for relatively strong players to make their leadership more civilised, less burdensome and less intrusive for all other participants in the international scene.
Ultimately, however, multilateralism, like any other format of diplomatic activity, will always be as effective or ineffective as the players who practice them want. So far, most of these players are guided by an understanding of multilateralism somewhere between Multilateralism II and Multilateralism I, gradually sliding from the first to the second. Reversing this negative trend to start moving towards Multilateralism III will require tremendous efforts.
From our partner RIAC
Europe’s relations with Africa and Asia are on the brink of collapse, and Russia is benefiting
More than one year since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the world remains caught in the middle. Against a backdrop of high energy and food prices, ravaging inflation, social unrest and fears of another global recession, Western and Russian blocs are once again vying for support from nations of the developing world.
Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, Sergei Lavrov, Qin Gang, and Anthony Blinken are just some of the names that have made high-profile visits to Africa in the last 12 months. All have largely focused on cooperation and trade, yet each has done so with a discourse reflecting a kind of Cold War reboot, with Ukraine as one of its most prominent symptoms.
Each in their own way, armed with their respective propaganda, these superpowers wish for nations of Africa and Asia to pick a side. Yet, unlike the previous century, those nations cannot so easily be made to choose, nor should they have to. Russia understands this. The West does not.
It’s no secret that Africa has been reluctant to overtly condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, or to participate in Western efforts to sanction and isolate the warring country. Instead, African and Asian nations have continued to welcome these longstanding partners with open arms – widely condemning the war, but not Russia.
In Malawi, for instance, Russia’s deliveries of tens of thousands of tonnes of fertiliser amidst global shortages are seen as a gift from heaven by struggling farmers. Malawi’s minister of agriculture shook hands with the Russian ambassador, describing Russia gratefully as “a true friend”. Russia’s announced plans to send 260,000 tonnes of fertiliser to countries across Africa, is certain to spread similar sentiments.
In my country Congo-Brazzaville, the government signed five major cooperation agreements with Russia in the midst of its war with Ukraine, including for the construction of a new oil pipeline and to enhance military cooperation.
This charm offensive, prominently led by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who has visited South Africa, Eswatini, Angola, Eritrea, Mali, Sudan and Mauritania just since January, is already nourishing pro-Russian sentiment throughout the continent, and stands in sharp contrast to the damp squib that was President Emmanuel Macron’s recent African adventure.
In his press conference with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President, Felix Tshisekedi, in what was perhaps the most deaf-tone faux pas of his entire trip, President Macron was repeatedly asked to condemn Rwanda’s support for M23 rebels causing havoc in eastern DRC – a situation that closely resembles Russia’s covert support for Donbass separatists in recent years. For all intents and purposes, he failed to do so.
Instead, when a French journalist quizzed him on former Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s disparaging mention of an “African-style compromise” in relation to President Tshisekedi election in 2019, Macron proceeded to lecture the Congolese President on freedom of the press – much to the disbelief of those witnessing the scene.
Despite President Macron’s effusive rhetoric about ‘new relationships’ and ‘new starts’, his outburst was yet another bitter reminder of Europe’s longstanding paternalistic and dissonant attitude towards the continent. This is the same attitude whereby decades of European political and military influence on the continent have failed to generate meaningful progress when they did not actively undermine those efforts. Africans are wise to this and refuse to take it anymore, as evidenced by the growth in anti-French sentiment in West Africa. Russia, China and others, though far from being without reproach, are merely seizing the presented opportunities.
Just as the share of EU aid going to Africa has declined significantly, similar problems are afoot with Europe’s relations in Asia. Its share of Southeast Asian merchandise trade, excluding China, fell by over a third over the last two decades. Western Europe was the destination for less than a tenth of Malaysian, Singaporean, South Korean and Taiwanese exports in 2021. Russia is again moving fast to fill the gap, adopting China as its main trading partner, and consistently exporting oil and gas to eager Asian buyers, rather than to the West. When Russia suspended its double taxation treaties with “unfriendly” countries around the world in mid-March, most Southeast Asian countries were exempted from this measure.
Moreover, Russia has over the last decade become the largest arms supplier to the region, recently running joint naval exercises with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia have all rejected imposing sanctions on Moscow, whilst Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia to improve agricultural trade earlier this year.
One cannot fault these nations for engaging in partnerships and cooperation with international partners, in the interest of addressing their most urgent societal priorities. Nor can one fault African and Asian countries for taking with a pinch of salt a discourse on international values and change, when this supposed change stems not from recognition of current flaws, but from the impositions of emergent global trends.
What lessons can be given about territorial integrity and justice, when the events of 2011 in Libya, as well as their enduring consequences, remain traumatically fresh in African minds, or when the posture of African countries relative to the war in Ukraine is almost identical to that of Europe relative to the conflict in the eastern provinces of the DRC?
What lessons should be drawn from European courts proceeding to the seizure of Malaysian assets and properties worth $15 billion – including lucrative oil and gas assets – based on a questionable arbitration authorised by a Spanish arbitrator facing criminal prosecution from the Spanish authorities? And who will really benefit, given that this claim on sovereign territories, derived from a mid-nineteenth agreement between a long-vanished Sultanate and a colonial-era British company, is funded by unknown third-party investors?
The willingness of European courts to confiscate the resources and assets of a sovereign Asian nation on such flimsy grounds is not lost on observers in Africa and across the developing world.
Whatever the answer to these questions may be, it is evident that relations between the old and new worlds will continue to strain as long as underlying assumptions and beliefs do not evolve. Specifically, change is needed in those attitudes that continue to consider developing nations as oblivious to the many contradictions of rhetoric and practice that characterise the world as we know it – whether in terms of: a system of aid and trade that nourishes the imbalances and ills it purports to address; a discourse on international law and values that crumbles in the face of past transgressions and current drives for reforms; or even negotiations on climate finance in which urgency stops when economic interests begin.
The Western world can only reverse this trajectory by seeking out a genuinely new footing in its relations with the countries of Africa and Asia – challenging its own assumptions and understandings about what a respectful partnership between equally legitimate nations truly means. This is not about paying lip-service to ideals struggling to remain convincing, nor is it about entirely conceding these ideals on the altar of economic pragmatism.
Rather this means accepting a due share of responsibility for the current state of affairs, understanding expectations for the future, being willing to make real concessions, and aligning discourse with dollars and deeds. In doing so, the Western world will reassure those of us that continue to believe in the promises of the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that these were not merely pretences to maintain hegemony in the face of existential threats, but rather an enduring vision for a better world that remains worth fighting for today.
A Muscular U.S. Foreign Policy and Changing Alliances
Imagine a country rich in fossil fuels and another nearby that is Europe’s premier industrial power in dire need of those resources — is that a match made in heaven?
Not according to Joe Biden who quashed it as if it was a match made in hell. Biden was so much against any such rapprochement that to end all prospects of a deal, he ordered the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines. Two out of four lines were severely damaged, about 50 meters of them and Russia chose not to conduct repairs. Instead,it is pumping its gas up through Turkey.
So far, Russia has not responded to this act of war but a leader can not afford to lose face domestically or internationally, and one may not be surprised if an American facility or ship suffers an adverse event in the future.
In the meantime, Russia has become fast friends with China — the latter having its own bone to pick with Biden. China, a growing industrial giant, has almost insatiable energy needs and Russia stands ready to supply them. An informal deal has been agreed upon with a formal signing ceremony on March 20, 2023.
So who won this fracas? Russia gets to export its gas anyway and China, already generating the world’s highest GDP on a purchasing-power-parity basis, has guaranteed itself an energy source.
Of course there is Ukraine where Biden (like the US in Vietnam) is ready to fight to the last Ukrainian. Despite a valiant resistance, they are not winning, for Russia continues to solidify its hold on Ukraine’s east, most recently by taking Soledar and capturing parts of the transport hub Bakhmut itself.
And then there is Saudi Arabia: hitherto a staunch U.S. ally, it is now extending a hand of friendship to Iran, which its previous king used to call the snake in the Middle East. But Saudi Arabia is keenly aware of the vassal-like manner in which the U.S. has treated Germany, its ally with the largest economy in Europe, over its desire to buy cheap gas from Russia. The deal was nixed and observers estimate it cost Germany a couple of points of GDP growth. Such a loss in the U.S. would translate to almost zero growth.
India used to be a neutral country between the great powers. In fact, its first leader after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leading figure in the non-aligned movement. It is now being tugged towards the US.
The latest tug is ICET or the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies. Its purpose is to find ways to engage through “innovation bridges” over the key areas of focus. This coordination between the two countries is to cover industry, academia and government.
On the other hand, India’s arch rival Pakistan used to be in the US orbit for decades. Now it is virtually a Chinese client state even though for a time, particularly during the Afghan war, it was a source of much help for the US.
Such are the vagaries of alignments in a multi-polar world, particularly when under pressure from major powers.
Adoption of the controversial pension reform bill in France
On Thursday, 16th March 2023, the senate adopted the pension reform bill with 193 senators voting for the project and 114 senators voting against it. A few hours later, after many meetings of key figures of the government and the Renaissance party –the governing party – , it was decided that the National Assembly was not going to vote for the bill but rather the government would use the famous 49.3, an article of the 1958 constitution which allows the prime minister to have a bill adopted into law without a vote. The Senate and the National Assembly – through a joint committee – had agreed on a compromise text of the bill the day before the crucial vote in the Parliament. The project was so important to President Macron that he threatened to dissolve the National Assembly if the project did not go through. Some analysts saw this threat as way of inducing members of the National Assembly to adopt the project rather than put into jeopardy their political careers. Politicians like Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice, a staunch republican, claims members of the National Assembly had to vote the bill because they should be convinced that it is the best thing to do right now for a sustainable pension system in France.
When President Macron was elected in 2017, he pledged to change the pension system in France for he believed that it was unjust and that it would be difficult to sponsor it in the years to come since more people will be going into retirement. It is believed that those aged 65 will be more than the under 20 come the year 2030. Macron did not carry out the reform in his first term in office after meeting with different resistance like the one of the Gilets Jaunes; he probably feared it may cost him the second term. Once the first term was over, he was most probably determined to carry on simply because he is not scared to lose, his second term being the last one. The pension reform has been heavily contested, with polls in February 2023 suggesting that 65% of the French people are against it.
The reform moves the retirement age from 62 to 64 years. The change will be carried out progressively with 3 months added each year to make it two years in total in 2030. To have fully contributed to the retirement insurance one will have worked 43 years. People working in relatively hard industries like the police, firefighters, garbage collection will still be able to retire early. However, those who entered the career late like those who had long studies will have to work until 67 years. Disabled people could still go on retirement at the age of 55 while those who have suffered disability along the way could retire at the age of 60.
With the new bill having become a law, those who will have a complete career (43 years) will not receive less than 85% of minimum wage (i.e. 1200 Euros gross salary). Furthermore, the government believes it will be able to save 17.7 billion Euros by 2030 with the new pension system. According to the government, increasing the retirement age was the fairer way than increasing taxes especially that people are believed to live longer than in the past.
The left parties (La France Insoumise LFI, Les Socialistes, Europe Ecologie-les Verts) have made it difficult for the bill discussion especially in the National Assembly by proposing thousands of amendments to delay the voting process and even derail it. This is probably why the government feared to lose the vote and decided to invoke 49.3. The government doesn’t have the outright majority and has had to rely on the right party (les Républicains LR) to have the reform bill voted in the Senate but some of Renaissance members of the National Assembly were reluctant to vote for the bill and some LR members had said they would abstain, leaving the ruling party with no other choice than to use 49.3. The Prime Minister suggested that “the reform is necessary” and she was taking responsibility by invoking 49.3.
The reform bill was so unpopular that there have been protests for months spearheaded by the Union of workers who mobilized workers across many industries (i.e. energy, transport) and public institutions (e.g. education). Millions of people have been on the street, a reminiscence of 1968, when students spearheaded strikes in which 10 million of people took to the street to make request which resulted, inter alia, in the 35% increase of minimum wage. The objective of protestors against pension reform bill had been to make the government withdraw the entire project because they believe it is unjust to ask people to work two years more, considering that their career is long enough. President Macron seemed not interested to receive the Unions and had no intention to withdraw the project.
As a result of strikes, the city of Paris and some other cities in France have seen the bins fill up along the streets and residents are said to hold their noses as they pass by. For some this is not the image to show to the world for a city that is hosting Olympic games in 2024 let alone for health reasons but for others this is the price to pay for the actions of a government that does not hid the voices of the people. Transport on the road as well as in the air has been heavily disrupted. Those who don’t participate in strikes are generally said to support the actions of the protesters. However, it is unclear if they will keep supporting them if the movement lasts long.
Using 49.3 always comes with the risk that the opposition would present a censure motion, in which the government itself runs the risk of being forced to resign and the text of the bill being rejected if the censure motion is adopted. Before the Prime Minister announced that the government had chosen to use 49.3 to adopt the pension reform bill, she was not allowed to speak for a few minutes. Ivan Rioufol, a journalist at CNews believes that this moment is not just a big moment for the 5th Republic but also a historical moment. For now, the government has triumphed and one of the most contested reforms of French modern politics has become a law– at least if the censure motion does not bring down the government and along with it, the newly-adopted law.
Nonetheless, despite the bill being adopted into law by the Senate and through 49.3, unions have vowed to keep protesting until the law is suspended. In a recent BFMTV poll, 62% French people would want the strikes to continue if the bill passes. Now that it has passed, it is not clear whether the resistance will make the government change anything. Neither is it clear whether the movement itself will be able to resist long since the longer workers strike the more money they lose from the salary. With the inflation and conditions of life that have been hard due to Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine it will be hard to sustain the strikes. What is clear is that the repercussions of this reform will linger on for many years to come. One anonymous political scientist even claimed that this could open the narrow door to the extreme right to come into power.
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