Emmanuel Macron wants to change the rules. In a letter sent on Sunday to the parties, and revealed by Le Figaro, the Head of State put back on the table a subject debated at length during the first “Saint-Denis meetings”: the relaxation of the referendum, and its extension to “social issues”, such as immigration or “the end of life”.
A political initiative reminiscent of that of one of his predecessors, almost 40 years ago. In 1984, François Mitterrand tried a gamble and proposed broadening the conditions for organizing a referendum to extend it to public freedoms. The initiative is mainly designed to have the Savary bill adopted. This text, which aims to integrate private schools into “a major public service”, brings more than a million French people onto the streets, and weakens the government. Result: in the spring of 1984, the popularity rating of the head of state was at its lowest (30% satisfied), just three years after his accession to the Élysée. “The president is facing a deep social and political crisis, he must break the deadlock,” says historian Jean Garrigues, author of Happy Days (Ed. Payot).
Also read: In 1984, the mobilization was fatal to the Savary law
Until then, the bill had a chaotic parliamentary journey. After a passage in the National Assembly, where the left-wing majority toughened the text a little further, the Senate, with a right-wing majority, took up the explosive issue at the beginning of the summer. On July 5, the boss of the RPR senators, Charles Pasqua, put the executive under pressure and tabled a referendum motion to submit the Savary bill to the polls. The operation is impossible as it stands since the scope of the referendum is then limited to questions relating to the organization of public authorities. But the initiative has the merit of seriously annoying the top of the State. During a trip to Auvergne, the president criticized “mediocre policy” and assured that he would not allow himself to be “intimidated by invectives and obstructions”.
However, behind the scenes, François Mitterrand is preparing his counterattack to trap the right. From his sheepfold in Latche (Landes), where he goes every summer, the president explains his plan to his close collaborator, Michel Charasse, and to the boss of the Socialist Party, Lionel Jospin. In the coming days, he will propose a referendum on the Constitution, as desired by the RPR and its allies. But he also knows that the senatorial right, very angry against the executive, will oppose it. “It was a political maneuver. He was keen to find a way out to abort this project which he did not want,” relates his special advisor, Jacques Attali.
On July 12, without having informed his government, François Mitterrand shifted into high gear. Taking the oppositions and his own camp by surprise, he announced the holding of a “referendum on the referendum”. “I think that the time has come to initiate the constitutional revision which will allow the President of the Republic (...) to consult the French on the major questions which concern these precious inalienable goods which are public liberties, and that is the people who will decide,” he says.
Also read History of the referendum in France: a long mistrust of the leaders towards the people
None of this will ultimately happen. Disowned, the Minister of National Education, Alain Savary, renounces and leaves his functions. Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy followed suit and presented the resignation of his government. The bill is simply withdrawn, while the constitutional revision process is slipping. The “referendum on the referendum” was finally rejected on August 8 by the right and the center in the Senate, who had nevertheless demanded it. Everything goes as planned for François Mitterrand, who then takes pleasure in confronting the RPR with its contradictions and above all, making it take the blame for this failure.
“The senatorial majority did not want to give him a gift. The reform of Article 11 would certainly have been approved by the French, and this would have allowed the head of state to show that he had the support of the people,” analyzes public law professor Dominique Rousseau. A scenario that Emmanuel Macron undoubtedly keeps in the back of his mind. “Is the opposition ready to give him this gift today, a few months before the European elections?” asks the constitutionalist.