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Macron asks a restive France: What would you like to change?

Why We Wrote This

Even in the best of times, many French feel their government isn't listening to them, and today that is especially true. Can a “national debate” counteract their malaise, or will it feed into skepticism?

Ludovic Marin/AP
French President Emmanuel Macron gestures during a meeting as part of the “great national debate” in the Courcouronnes suburb of Paris, on Feb. 4.

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For the next several weeks, French President Emmanuel Macron has called on the people to offer up their suggestions on better ways of governing in terms of the economy, education, the environment, security, and more. While many view France’s “great national debate” with skepticism, the initiative offers the French a chance to address their government and address the concerns of the “Yellow Vest” protesters who have been demonstrating over the past several months.

The current government has taken its cues from King Louis XVI, who in 1789 ordered lists of grievances from the working class, peasants, and middle class as a way to express themselves directly to the monarchy. Claire Andrieu, a professor at Sciences Po Paris, says this was a major political event and has remained in the national memory because the resulting answers were conserved. This is something the current administration hopes will come to fruition as well.

The grievances of 1789 “talked a lot about fiscal inequality; the nobility was largely exempt from paying taxes, while the bourgeoisie and especially peasants were affected,” says Professor Andrieu. “Today in the ‘Yellow Vest’ movement, there are strong anti-fiscal overtones.”

It’s a chamber usually dedicated to governmental debate, but this time, things are different.

Here in the assembly room of the Hotel de Ville, Paris’s town hall, council members have been replaced with local citizens, and law proposals have given way to public comment. There’s a “videomaton,” a makeshift video-recording booth for people to express their thoughts on camera, as well as a whiteboard to jot down suggestions for change.

It is all part of France’s “great national debate,” an effort to quell the raging “Yellow Vest” protests that have shaken the nation since mid-November. For the next several weeks, French President Emmanuel Macron has called on the people to offer up their suggestions on better ways of governing in terms of the economy, education, the environment, security, and more.

While many view the national debate with skepticism, the initiative offers the French a chance to address their government and participate in decisionmaking for the first time since the French Revolution. Though its outcome remains unclear, the debate has provided a peaceful platform for citizen engagement and could be the boost the French need to restore their faith in the nation.

“Finally, it’s a real forum where people have the choice in how the law is written; it’s not imposed,” says Jean Isnardi, a Parisian who has stopped into the Hotel de Ville during his lunch break to contribute to what the town hall has dubbed a “free expression” day. “I think the debate can improve the malaise we’re experiencing in France.”

‘Better to talk than not to talk’

In Romainville, an economically struggling suburb of Paris, the town hall is filled on a weekday night with locals looking to contribute to the debate. While some of the concerns are the same as those in Paris or anywhere in the country – housing taxes, buying power, and security – others are unique to Paris’s banlieue.

For Marie Ange, the lack of work and increasing safety issues in her neighborhood have brought her here, while Rafika Kaddour says immigration and social diversity are pressing issues for her suburb, where immigrants make up 23 percent of the population and poverty touches 27 percent.

Marie Coasne, one of the few young people in the room, says the format is interesting even if she doesn’t know what will come of the debates. “I don’t know if we can talk about hope yet, but I wanted to seize this opportunity,” she says. “If we do, we won’t have any regrets. We will have tried.”

Mr. Macron announced the national debate initiative in mid-January as a way for the French to voice their grievances in an increasingly tense national atmosphere. In his open letter that launched the debate, Macron put forward more than 30 questions and four general themes for the public to focus on: taxes, the organization of state administrations, the environment, and democracy.

He called upon mayors, deputies, and citizens to organize the debates in what he hoped would be town hall-style gatherings, though the formats are left up to local leaders to decide. Once the debates conclude on March 15, he said he will take the answers and study them for a month, after which he will come back to the public with the results, though he hasn’t said exactly what that will mean.

“I’m skeptical about what these debates will change concretely, but what’s positive is the fact that it allows for debate in and of itself,” says Guillaume Gourgues, a lecturer in political science at the Université Lumière Lyon 2, who studies participatory democracy. “It’s always better to talk than not to talk…. It’s especially good for those who have become disinterested in politics.”

Growing inequality

Much of the uncertainty about how the debates will play out stems from the fact that the initiative is a first for France. Not since the French Revolution has the government provided a public forum for citizens to formally express their thoughts on the state of the nation. The current government has taken its cues from King Louis XVI, who in 1789 ordered “cahier de doléances” – lists of grievances from the working class, peasants, and middle class as a way to express themselves directly to the monarchy.

Claire Andrieu, a professor of contemporary history at Sciences Po Paris, says there is a significant parallel between the monarchical practice and that of the current Fifth Republic.

In 1789, “the cahier des doléances talked a lot about fiscal inequality; the nobility was largely exempt from paying taxes, while the bourgeoisie and especially peasants were affected,” says Professor Andrieu. “Today in the Yellow Vest movement, there are strong anti-fiscal overtones.”

In 2017, Macron abolished an annual tax on the wealthy, which has caused many to call him elitist and out of touch with the people.

Andrieu says the act of asking for the cahier de doléances was a major political event in the 18th century and has remained in the national memory because the resulting answers were conserved. This is something the current administration hopes will come to fruition as well.

“Our intention is to collect the concerns of the people and transmit them to the national government,” says Pauline Véron, Paris’s deputy mayor of citizen engagement. “If the same themes emerge, we could be looking at reforms or referendums. We obviously want these debates to result in something concrete.”

Could the debates work too well?

But it is exactly the result of these debates – and the potential for society-altering changes – that have some French people concerned.

“I’m worried that the debates could result in a referendum,” says Dorsaf Meddef of Paris in the Hotel de Ville. “I think the current mood in France is too tense, too angry, to conduct a referendum.”

One of the demands of Yellow Vest protesters is instating Citizens’ Initiative Referendums (RIC) – a practice currently employed in a handful of European countries like Switzerland, where citizens are regularly asked to vote on policies. But it could be a risky move for the country as well as for Macron; in 1969, President Charles de Gaulle was forced to resign as a result of a referendum.

Some say turning to examples from other European countries is a better answer than conducting a national debate. Gerd-Rainer Horn, a professor of political history at Paris’s Sciences Po, says that in Germany the Green party was born out of the country’s major anti-nuclear movement in the early 1970s. By 1983, the Greens had made their entry into the parliament, offering a voice to the people before spreading to other parts of Europe. Now Green parties exist in most European countries.

And in Spain, the Indignados anti-austerity movement – which saw upward of 8 million Spaniards taking part in months of protest events – gave way to the Podemos party, which is now the second largest political party in Spain.

“Whether the formation of a new political party is always necessary for change is hard to predict,” says Dr. Horn. “But if nothing gives voice to a movement, it dies out.”

A recent OpinionWay poll has shown that 67 percent of those surveyed think Macron’s national debate is a good thing. Dr. Gourgues, the political scientist, says that while the debates haven’t yet been enough to quell the Yellow Vest protesters completely, they’re allowing for a political engagement for even the most disenchanted.

“There are many different types of debates forming around the country [because of this initiative], not just those organized by the government,” says Gourgues. “People feel involved in public affairs, and it’s a first for many. As a result, they want to continue to debate and push their ideas forward, whether it’s within the official confines of the national debate or not.”

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