Younger readers start here. My favourite comedian as a child was a man called Harry Worth, who is remembered now, if at all, for a daft sight gag with a shop window (preserved on YouTube, if you're interested). The sitcom character he played, a gentle bumbler, kept the infant Aitken in stitches.
A line of his came into my head the other day for the first time in half a century. In this episode, he had decided to be a thriller writer, to which end he had invented a hero called Highwayman Harry. Reading his manuscript to a friend, he came to the end of Chapter Five with Highwayman Harry shackled and chained in the deepest dungeon of the strongest castle in the realm. Turning the page, Worth read on: 'Chapter Six. And with one bound… Highwayman Harry was free'.
Édouard Philippe, Prime Minister of France, bears no resemblance to Harry Worth. Worth looked rather like the late Merlyn Rees. Philippe, balding with a closely trimmed beard, looks like Sinead O'Connor with her head on upside down. But his strategy for ending four months of traumatic protests over pensions reform was worthy of Highwayman Harry at his most swashbuckling.
It does not take much to put protestors on the streets of France, especially if the public sector union federation, the CGT, is miffed about something, which it usually is. But the reaction against the Macron/Philippe reforms is on an exceptional scale. For months, public transport has been in chaos. Unmilitant groups like advocates, doctors, opera singers, even the police, have joined the protests, furious that their long-negotiated and long-cherished sectoral early retirement deals, of which there are 42, are to be merged into a single points-based system. The wider public, while recognising the need to cut costs and largely excluded from sectoral privilege, was nonetheless incensed by initial plans, since fudged, to raise the basic retirement age for everyone.
Determined to get to grips with pensions where previous administrations have failed, and to pacify matters before next month's local elections, Philippe brought the reforms to the National Assembly in mid-February. Thirteen days later, a cacophonous debate had resulted, not in any detectable consensus, but in the opposition parties tabling no fewer than 41,000 amendments. It was at this point, on 29 February, that Highwayman Édouard executed his mighty bound.
He owes the trick to a politician who could hardly be of more different stamp to himself: Charles de Gaulle. It was de Gaulle who, in drafting the 1958 constitution of what would become the Fifth Republic, decided that France needed a safety valve to prevent essential measures being obstructed by fractious parliamentarians, as had happened previously. He therefore invented Article 49.3 of the French Constitution.
This provides that, for the Finance Bill, for a Social Security Financing Bill, or for one other measure per session, the Prime Minister can declare the decision a vote of confidence and propel it towards law without a substantive vote: 'In that event,' says the Constitution, 'the Bill shall be considered passed unless a resolution of no confidence, tabled within the subsequent 24 hours, is carried'. A no confidence vote, normally held after three days, requires the Prime Minister to resign if it passes.
Given the current majority for Macron supporters in the National Assembly, that was never going to happen. Nor did it. The best the Left could do was to force not one but two confidence votes, lose them both, and then boycott a later procedural motion. The measure now goes to the indirectly-elected upper house, the Senate, where it can expect a more sedate, if still critical, reception. It is expected to return to the National Assembly for final approval sometime in the summer. In the meantime, parallel talks are taking place away from parliament with those opponents who are willing to take part, to see whether less painful ways can be found to make the desired savings. The legislation is loosely enough framed to accommodate any emerging agreement.
Article 49.3 is used rarely and with reluctance. It scarcely betokens a premier in full command of events. There is also, of course, no guarantee that the protesters will accept Philippe's coup in good and tranquil grace. The immediate response of the CGT and its allies was to bring forward and ramp up the schedule of action already planned. But it has bought Philippe some time. And you have to admit, as rabbits-out-of-hats go, it's a pretty neat trick.
The episode strikes me as interesting to the British onlooker for two reasons. The first, and more trivial, is that it's irresistible to wonder whether Philippe's ploy may have drawn inspiration from the election success of 'Get Brexit Done', which evidently gained the weary acquiescence even of some Remain voters. The pension protests haven't dragged on nearly as long as Brexit, but they have created ample grounds for public exasperation, and the background debate is years – decades – old.
Second, it exemplifies the fascinating capacity of French politics to catch you unawares. To the casual onlooker, it can all seem rather stolid and inert, with the same personalities hanging around for decades, even after death. Centre-right politicians still call themselves Gaullists even though Harry Worth was at the height of his fame when de Gaulle went under the turf at Colombey. Yet the process is much more supple than it looks. François Mitterand had the manner of a perpetual obelisk, but Philip Short's excellent biography reveals a politician who rose to power by changing his policies, friendships and personal narrative with his shirts. Emmanuel Macron's En Marche, now in power, didn't exist five years ago. Nor did many groupings contesting the local elections.
French politics are, I think, quicker to sense and absorb changes in public mood than their British equivalent. Macron's candidate for the prized post of Mayor of Paris, Benjamin Griveaux, was forced to step down in February after video recordings surfaced showing him in an allegedly compromising sexual light. The Russian artist who posted the material online is now in custody. Party grandees, from Marine Le Pen on the far Right to Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the Left and including Philippe, expressed sympathy and regret at Griveaux's resignation. But he was brought down nonetheless, accused of hypocrisy for not living up to the family values he espoused.
It would seem that something has shifted since the days when Mitterand could run two families simultaneously from the Élysée Palace, or François Hollande sally forth on a scooter for romantic assignations, without the French electorate showing any great inclination to care. How piquant it would be if France's traditional insistence that private peccadillos have no bearing on public lives were to be crumbling at the same moment that the British, always assumed to be stuffed shirts in such matters, seem indifferent to the murk that surrounds Boris Johnson's procreative history.
That said, it is not hard to imagine Dominic Cummings sitting in the room next to Johnson's at No 10, eagerly trawling eBay to find out where he can buy an Article 49.3.