When big nations need a little tête-à-tête

France’s president, besieged by protests, initiates a national dialogue to gather ideas and form a new ‘contract.’ Has listening become key to political leadership?

In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron talks to mayors of rural areas about citizen requests for government action on Jan. 14.

In the anti-elite politics and protests of today’s democracies, leaders are eager for new ways to gauge public opinion. Many of the old ways – elections, polling, referendums, even Twitter – just seem inadequate to shape consensus.

In Ethiopia, for example, a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, holds “listening rallies” before crowds, seeking advice. “Change can only come,” he tells them, “if we are only able to change ourselves.” Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, takes questions during hourlong press conferences – every workday starting at 7 a.m. and live on YouTube. Such style of leadership – or is it listenership? – reflects a certain self-reflection.

Now France’s beleaguered president, Emmanuel Macron, offers his own model. On Monday he kicked off a two-month national dialogue in response to weeks of “yellow vest” protests against his economic policies.

The French are being encouraged to express opinions at the local level with the help of mayors, either in town hall meetings or in online questionnaires. The topics up for discussion: the environment, democracy, public services, and taxes. Mr. Macron will attend the first meeting on Tuesday in Grand Bourgtheroulde.

“We’ll show we’re a people which is not afraid of talking, exchanging, debating,” he wrote in a letter to the public. “This is how I intend to turn anger into solutions.”

Macron himself is famous for breaking the political mode in 2017 by defeating France’s entrenched parties. His victory was a symbol of Europe’s anti-elite movements of both the left and right. Now even he, after proposing a fuel tax that sparked grass-roots protests in November, is being forced to find what he calls a new “contract for the nation.”

He faces a high wall of distrust. One poll shows few in France believe the “grand débat” will be independent enough to lead to useful solutions. The poll also indicates about 40 percent of people will participate.

The mood is similar to that in many American companies where workers demand fewer bosses and more equality and consultation – or simply bosses who ask questions before giving answers.

To come up with blueprints for solutions, a group or society must first build bridges of mutual understanding. Techniques like “listening tours” help in pushing people to take a long-term perspective and be willing to show empathy. They are often inclusive and do not define a winning argument from the start. An invitation for deliberation can change the way people talk.

Macron’s grass-roots national dialogue – in response to grass-roots protests – is noble in concept. Yet it’s unclear what it might unleash. “In trying to bring fresh air into our democracy, it could quickly degenerate into a free-for-all,” warned the French daily Le Figaro. With patience and reflection on the part of the French, however, good ideas can float to the top.

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