President uses meetings to defuse rumblings of discontent and recapture the political initiative.
Victor Mallet in Rouen, France, ft.com
Everyone wants to have their say. Immediately.
Annie Vidal, member of parliament for Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche party, is trying to launch a session of the French president’s “great national debate” — two months of public meetings organised to defuse nationwide protests over the cost of living.
But in a meeting hall in a depressed suburb of Rouen, she is quickly interrupted by an angry Olivier Demiselle, a Communist municipal councillor.
He loudly reads a speech about “citizens’ anger and rebellion”, and the failings of a debate for which Mr Macron has chosen the questions, when he is interrupted in turn by an even angrier man whose father died in hospital. “They did nothing for my father,” he screams at Ms Vidal, Mr Demiselle and the bemused debaters. “They don’t give a damn for us. The debate is pointless.”
The French want to express themselves Karl Olive, mayor of Poissy
The old mill town of Darnétal — where the discussion finally began after the protester was escorted by police from the hall — is typical of the post-industrial communities fomenting the anti-establishment “gilets jaunes” (yellow vest) demonstrations. More than 20 per cent of the workforce in this corner of Normandy are unemployed and others struggle to eke out their earnings until the end of the month.
But despite the occasional rowdiness, even Mr Macron’s opponents see his choice of a public consultation to quell the unrest as a politically canny move. It has allowed him to recapture the initiative — and television airtime — from the protesters by challenging them to explain exactly what they want and taking the arguments to a wider audience.
The uprising began as a motorists’ rebellion against a rise in green fuel taxes — which Mr Macron reversed — but grew into a wider protest against the president and government.
“It’s his last chance to reconcile with the French people,” says Karl Olive, the centre-right mayor of Poissy near Paris and a former television sports producer at the start of the debate in January. “The French want to express themselves.”
Halfway through the two-month debate, which ends on March 15, the government has declared it “an undoubted success”. More than 6,000 public meetings have been arranged (2,500 have already happened), and more than 850,000 contributions have been posted online about tax and public spending, environmental policies, public services and the future of democracy.
For Mr Macron, the results are clear: he has regained the ebullient confidence that won him the presidency, and his standing in the opinion polls has risen sharply from a low at the end of last year.
“He has really regained the initiative,” says Jean Pisani-Ferry, the former Macron adviser and author of the president’s original economic programme.
The looming question now is what happens next and whether the result will satisfy the diverse views of those who have taken part — or trigger a new round of disillusion with Mr Macron and his reform programme. It does not help that the active debaters are overwhelmingly white and elderly and thus not representative of France as a whole.
The nationwide debate is a good “emergency measure that makes it more difficult for the gilets jaunes”, says Dominique Reynié of the Fondapol think-tank in Paris. “But what is there at the exit? . . . I fear we forget the primary reason [for the protests], which is extremely important, namely the demands for the French state to change the way it governs.”
Mr. Macron’s advisers have floated the idea of a multi-question French referendum to coincide with the.0 European elections in May, but the suggestion is proving to be constitutionally and politically awkward. Like Donald Trump’s US and Brexit Britain, France remains deeply divided between a liberal metropolitan elite and a resentful hinterland of people in small towns who feel scorned by their rulers.
Back in the meeting hall in Darnétal, the proposals are coming thick and fast from the 45 participants, who include a retired teacher, an IT manager and a prison social worker: abolish income tax altogether or, alternatively, impose an obligatory charge on everyone “in the spirit of the revolution”; extend the presidential term to six years and cut the National Assembly’s to four (both are currently five); make it easier to complete the government’s fiendishly complicated online forms; introduce proportional representation for national elections; and reopen remote railway stations.
“People are happy to talk,” says Ms Vidal, the Macron MP who organised the debate. “It’s unprecedented.” Others are dismissive. “For us it’s not a debate, it’s a questionnaire,” says Alain Havel, a 56-year-old stonemason who lost his job after the 2008 financial crisis.
It falls to one of the rapporteurs from the rebellious table at the back of the hall (they refuse to use the forms provided) to sum up the mood as people gather their coats: “We are agreed that we pretty much agreed on nothing,” he announces cheerfully.