France kick-starts ‘grand national debate’ to calm yellow vest protesters

Protesters take part in a protest march during a women's 'Gilets Jaune' (Yellow Vests) between Place de la Bastille and Republique, in Paris, France, 6 January 2019. [Ian Langsdon/EPA/EFE]

From 15 January to 15 March France will hold what President Emmanuel Macron has termed the “great national debate”, a public consultation to discuss the “essential questions” facing the nation after nearly two months of violent so-called ‘yellow vest’ protests.

Macron swept away France’s traditional parties in 2017 with a grassroots campaign that promised more participative democracy. He is hoping the same tactics will now defuse the biggest crisis of his presidency.

The debate is the third prong of the 41-year-old’s strategy for ending the demonstrations, which erupted over high fuel taxes but ballooned into a widely supported revolt over living standards.

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Macron has already opened the state’s purse strings, scrapping fuel tax hikes as part of a €10 billion package of wage boosts and tax relief for low earners.

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Embattled French President Emmanuel Macron Monday (10 December) announced a series of financial measures seeking to defuse the “yellow vest” revolt that has triggered violent protests in cities across the country.

At the same time, the government has vowed to crack down on the Saturday protests in Paris and other cities since November, with their now-routine scenes of burning cars, smashed up shops and clashes with police.

The “great national debate”, which will see town-hall meetings held around the country, is Macron’s attempt to satisfy yellow vest demands for a greater say in the running of the country, amid accusations that he is too high-handed and distant.

“We believe in this debate, we think it’s essential,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Wednesday.

“We think that in the current period for our country, we need to be extremely open to having a productive debate, while also being very firm on the functioning of our institutions,” he added.

Popular frustration

Macron’s office is trying to corral the discussions into four overarching themes: taxes; France’s transition to a low-carbon economy; democracy and citizenship; and government organisation and public services.

But political scientists warn such consultations can easily be swayed by a small, motivated number of citizens, bringing “results that aren’t at all representative of the majority of the French,” according to Luc Rouban, an academic at the Cevipof political science institute in Paris.

Some MPs in Macron’s own party also fear the consultations will spur a cascade of extravagant or nebulous demands, or calls for an outright repeal of existing laws.

And in France’s right-wing Republicans party, many have painful memories of a debate about “national identity” organised in 2009 under their former leader Nicolas Sarkozy — which led to more divisions.

Ending same-sex marriages, which were approved by the Socialist government in 2013 in the face of massive protests, is at the top of the list of demands made on a website which is compiling the grievances of yellow vest protesters.

Another is overturning the lower 80 km/h speed limit imposed on secondary roads last year, which furious rural drivers have assailed as symbolic of elite Parisians’ disregard for the provinces.

The government has ruled out any backtrack on existing laws, prompting some yellow vest protesters to deride the debates as a smokescreen aimed at smothering the movement.

Free-for-all?

The debates, to run from 15 January to 15 March, are already off to a less-than-auspicious start after the head of France’s national debates commission, Chantal Jouanno, withdrew her participation amid outrage over her €14,666 monthly salary.

Mayors are supposed to be organising the public meetings, and local officials will receive documentation kits with economic and statistical talking points to avoid endless shouting matches.

Macron will also publish a personal letter next week to households spelling out his goals for the debates before participating in one of the first, at a gymnasium in Bourgtheroulde in northwest France.

The stakes are high as the president prepares to push through reforms of the retirement and unemployment systems, and streamline public services while cutting thousands of civil servant jobs.

Many ministers in the government, particularly right-wing Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, are pushing to use the crisis as an opportunity to slash taxes and public spending.

France’s public sector is one of the biggest in the world relative to the size of its economy, but successive governments have struggled to contain spending despite promises to do so.

A lingering standoff with the yellow vests would make it nearly impossible to make headway on other reforms, analysts say.

Macron is also trying to rally support for a centrist pro-Europe alliance ahead of European Parliament elections in May, at a time when populist movements appear to have the wind in their sails.

“Macron has everything to fear from this exercise,” the rightwing Figaro daily wrote in a front-page editorial on Wednesday.

“In trying to bring fresh air into our democracy, it could quickly degenerate into a free-for-all,” it said.

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