Why you should care
The French president is clawing his way back up the ratings, thanks to a series of popular consultations.
France’s gilets jaunes call it a ruse to distract attention from their protests. Opposition politicians complain of a disguised campaign ahead of the European elections in May. A government member of Parliament has hailed it as “a return of citizens to politics … an immense responsibility.”
President Emmanuel Macron’s two-month “great national debate,” the main phase of which ended on Friday, has seized the attention of a country shaken by nearly four months of sometimes violent anti-establishment gilets jaunes demonstrations. Even Macron’s political rivals and detractors acknowledge that the popular consultation he announced in December and which began on Jan. 15 has been a political success. The latest opinion polls show he has recovered all the ground he lost after the first gilets jaunes demonstration in November.
Macron — who launched the debate with a marathon seven-hour performance of fielding questions, joking and sparring with 600 mayors in a small town in Normandy — has been in his element crisscrossing the country after retreating from public view in what seemed like a crisis of confidence following the first demonstrations.
It worked well. He was good.
Patrick Devedjian, former government minister, on Macron
“He prefers a direct dialogue,” says Boris Vallaud, a member of Parliament for the much diminished French Socialist Party. “Everyone marvels at the performance, but the fact that he’s going over the heads of the Parliament, the unions, the representative institutions, is a weakening of democracy.”
Patrick Devedjian, a former government minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy and a politician of the opposition Les Républicains, puts it more bluntly: “It worked well. He was good.”
Now, however, Macron must find an “exit strategy” after the debate to maintain his political momentum and avoid disappointing the disgruntled voters whose expectations have been raised by the consultation. After a recent decline in numbers at its nationwide March 2 protests, the fractured gilets jaunes movement is calling for bigger demonstrations following the end of the great debate.
Official figures show that the French posted nearly 1.5 million contributions online for the debate and attended 10,000 public meetings in schools, gyms and public halls. Town mayors provided 16,000 complaints books or suggestions books for people to write down their views.
Macron’s opponents complained that he defined the terms of the debate, providing the questions and the answers. He excluded some ideas from the start, including a reimposition of the wealth tax abolished by his government and the reversal of hard-won liberal laws such as those allowing gay marriage and ending the death penalty. Even so, citizens across the country largely ignored the government’s attempt to corral the debaters into four categories: environment, tax, the structure of the state, and democracy and citizenship, including immigration. Mayors and MPs say the key issue for debaters has been the cost of living — the very problem that sparked the gilets jaunes movement among motorists disgruntled at the rising cost of fuel because of green tax.
Macron and his government say they will announce the conclusions of the debate once the submissions have been analyzed and categorized, a month from now. Last weekend, his governing La République en Marche presented the party’s official contribution to the debate, announcing a flurry of possible legislative changes and policy adjustments aimed at assuaging popular grievances about injustice and the difficulty of making ends meet.
But by mid-April France will be embroiled in the campaign for the European elections in May. That could allow the president to escape with a few symbolic measures so that by the end of the long summer holidays in September — in the words of one politician who knows him — “no one talks about it anymore.” One option, the standard response of a French president in trouble, would be to fire the prime minister, Édouard Philippe.
At the Elysée presidential palace in Paris, however, Macron’s advisers insist that he will respond with his characteristic energy to the issues raised by the debate, having concluded from the submissions of those who took part — and from the demands of many of the protesters — that his liberal agenda of cutting taxes for people in work and reforming the burdensome French state is precisely what they want.
“Their demands are really that things move quicker, not that they stop,” says one senior official familiar with Macron’s thinking. “They want to see more concrete changes for them, not less reform. The conclusion of the great debate will not be to do nothing. The French people won’t accept that.”
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