As the French president introduces a process of dialogue with a ´Great National Debate’, many wonder whether it will help bring more democracy or end up being a diversion to control the news cycle.
“There must be no taboo in this time of dialogue,” said President Macron on Tuesday as he kicked-off a two-month-long national consultation, or ‘Great National Debate,’ that he hopes will solve the yellow vest crisis.
The French president chose a small town gymnasium, packed with 600 Norman mayors, to answer direct questions. He also set up the major themes that are open to public discussion, namely purchasing power and taxation, the organisation of the state and public services, the environmental transition, and last but not least, democracy and citizenship.
The yellow vest protesters take their name from the high-visibility jackets they wear in the streets and at roundabout barricades, which have become symbolic of their movement. Every Saturday for 10 weeks, yellow vests protesters have gathered to express their anger, following an increase in fuel taxes and the belief that Macron, a former investment banker seen as close to big business, is uninterested in their hardships.
Faced with an unignorable crisis, triggered by the implementation of its neoliberal policies, the current government first sought to marginalise and repress the movement – before granting concessions whose reach was deemed insufficient by most protesters. In a bid to reassert authority over the country, last week Macron launched a national debate, which will take place throughout the country over the two coming months.
However, doubts over the government’s motivations overshadow the public discussion. Is this a real opening, that will give way to more democracy, or a diversion to resume control over the news cycle, and pursue the implementation of unpopular reforms? Or, as some opposition leaders have claimed, a disguised campaign launch for the European elections?
A presidency in the balance?
During the first week of the Great Debate, Macron appeared to be on the front line– speaking for a staggering six hours 38 minutes on Tuesday and another six hours 32 on Friday. In two unprecedented question-and-answer sessions, the tenant of the Elysee Palace was drilled by the mayors of Normandy and Occitania. His long replies, during which Macron didn’t appear to wear a earpiece or read notes, were broadcast live by French news channels – two ‘performances’ that were acclaimed by majority deputies and other government backbenchers.
Macron has benefitted from a significant fall in public support for the yellow vest protesters over the past month. In a January 13 letter to the French people, he promised to use the national debate to channel yellow vest anger and shape politics in a more participatory fashion. But officials have already said changing the course of Macron’s reformist agenda, aimed at liberalising the economy, will be off limits.
“The debates are not an opportunity for people to offload all their frustrations, nor are we questioning what we’ve done in the past 18 months,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told BFM TV. “We’re not replaying the election.”
Facing a catastrophic political and financial situation in January of 1789, King Louis XVI summoned ‘his faithful subjects’ to expose the reasons of their anger, and their ideas to remedy the ills of a moribund feudal society. Frenchmen were invited to write about a wide range of topics in the Cahiers de Doleances, or grievance notebooks. It spelt the end of Louis XVI’s reign and sounded the death knell of the Ancien Regime.
Within months, Louis XVI was deposed and four years later, beheaded in public in Paris. Two hundred and thirty years on, President Macron, often criticised for his monarchical ways, is calling a national debate to sooth yellow vest protesters, whose 10-week uprising shook the country. Modern Cahiers de Doleances have been opened up by the mayors of up to 5,000 communes since the beginning of December.
Could the national debate turn out to be the final act of the yellow vests movement? Macron is betting on it. But by limiting the term of the debate, his government risks making the same mistake as that ill-fated monarchy, historian Stephane Sirot of University of Cergy-Pontoise told Le Parisien newspaper.
“Emmanuel Macron could be like Louis XVI who [...] receives the Grievance Notebooks but doesn’t understand anything from them,” he said.
Modalities of the debate
The yellow vest protesters have been demanding the right to call referendums through mass petitions. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has not rejected the idea. He called citizen-initiated referendums a “useful tool in a democracy” — but said their use should be limited.
More likely is an idea lauded within the ruling party, for the national debate to be followed by a referendum with several questions, rather than a single thumbs up or thumbs down vote, which would be perceived as a vote about Macron’s legitimacy and not the issues.
In any case, a clear stake is needed: public debate is only legitimate if there is confidence in the procedure, and if the participants are given assurances that political decisions will be made later on. In Belgium, Ireland and Iceland, for instance, citizens' assemblies were drawn up, which then proposed constitutional reforms, some of which were then submitted to the public through a referendum.
‘Citizen Cafe’ political debates, evenings of discussions – the debate will take various forms. Macron asked the French people to express their views in town hall meetings but also on the internet, on a website specifically created by the government. With the yellow vests, the roundabout had become the new agora for citizens to express themselves. With the national debate, the government is trying to bring them to more traditional and orderly forms of political involvement.
The role of mayors
Concerns have been raised over the role and the level of involvement of intermediary bodies, and in particular of the mayors, whose assistance in organising the debate is being relied on by the president.
“We are not organising the debate, we are making material resources available,” explains John Billard, vice president of the National Association of Rural Mayors. “We are facilitators, with no political or ideological interference.”
In the methodology kit made available to all by the National Commission for Public Debate, it is underlined that municipalities must make available a space for debate to anyone who asks for it. Still, the situation is far from satisfactory for many elected officials, who for the most part do not want to be associated with the government.
"I don’t want us to become the Republic’s punching balls," Alain Chrérien, the mayor of the eastern town of Vesoul, told RFI.
The impression of being the ‘fifth wheel on the wagon’, or at least a fallback solution, is shared by many mayors. Philippe Juvin, mayor of La Garenne-Colombes, believes that it is not his job “to extinguish the fire lit by Emmanuel Macron, even less after he spent 18 months scorning local elected officials!”
An opportunity for democracy
In the past decade, representative democratic regimes across Europe have often found themselves to be out of breath. Macron’s initiative could be a historic opportunity to rethink the inner workings of the French democratic system, while coming out of the crisis that began in November. More broadly, the national debate, if well-orchestrated, could provide an archetypal procedure to reinvent the Western models of social and economic justice.
Macron is thus offering the French a concrete exercise in participatory democracy. “With this great debate, citizens will be able, either during the meetings that we will organise, or directly on the internet, to give their opinion on all the topics they wish, which is a very good thing,” said Cecile Gallien, mayor of the southern town of Vorey and vice-president of the National Association of Mayors. “We will organise meetings that will be opened open to all," she promised.
And it has already started. In the morning of Saturday January 19, the Belfry of Arras in Pas-de-Calais, opened its doors to a hundred citizens who came to debate. The centrist mayor of Arras, Frederic Leturque, proposed last week to ensure the local organisation of the national debate.
More than 140 people, seven of them wearing their yellow vests, met in the hall of this flamboyant gothic monument to begin the discussions. “We are not expecting much, but we came here to see what they will tell us,” said Christophe Penin, 45. Since November 17, the independent worker has not taken off his fluorescent yellow vest.
Ongoing protests and lack of trust
But on the very same day, some 84,000 yellow vest protesters returned to the streets for Act 10 of nationwide protests, according to figures released on Saturday evening by the Ministry of the Interior. The numbers remain the same as Saturday January 12, despite the launch of the national debate. Demonstrations took place in a largely orderly manner, despite some violent flare-ups.
Elie, a 23-year-old political science student who marched alongside protesters on Saturday in Paris said he will not participate in the national debate. According to Elie, who declined to give his full name, and supported by several protesters approached in Paris on Saturday: the debate is “mere bullshit”.
Others are more open-minded. Sociologist Jean Viard is waiting to see whether the national debate can turn the tide. “Will the government get out five or six measures that will give the people the feeling that [Emmanuel Macron] understood something? We'll see,” said Viard. “It is the first time in this Republic that we are doing this.”