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Macron's national debate fails to stop protests

Lara Gohr
April 13, 2019

The French PM has presented the results of the "grand national debate," but critics have not been silenced. Now, the "yellow vests" nationwide have announced a fresh wave of protests, and what comes next is unclear.

French President Emmanuel Macron at a meeting to launch the "grand national debate"
Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Wojazer

For Lilian, it is another Saturday spent protesting. At 11 a.m. in his yellow vest, the 39-year-old set off for the Place de la Nation, one of the central squares in Paris.

He has come from his home in the Parisian suburbs to join a crowd of other demonstrators for the "yellow vest" movement. "We want transparency, justice, and genuine democracy," he says; he sees the movement as "a kind of mini French revolution."

Lilian is one of thousands of demonstrators who, with months of protests, have plunged the French government deep into crisis.

The original trigger for the uproar was an increase in fuel tax, but the yellow vest movement quickly became a mass mobilization for dissatisfied people from all walks of life.

An undefined movement

Every Saturday since November, the protests have paralyzed cities all over France. Apart from their high-visibility yellow workers' vests, there is not a lot that unites the movement other than the demand for higher purchasing power and democracy. The political spectrum of the movement ranges from the far-left to the far-right, but massive disruptions to the French capital in mid-March were mainly attributed to radical right-wing rioters.

Not just Paris has been affected, however. Torched cars and smashed windows have a become Saturday routine in many cities, as the yellow vests have been protesting regularly in the smaller provincial cities such as Bordeaux and Marseille.

A protester in Paris
Though the yellow vest protesters hail from all along the political spectrum, violence has mainly been perpetrated by right-wing demonstratorsImage: Reuters/P. Wojazer

This weekend, for example, an internet group called for the southern city of Toulouse to be "conquered."

In December, French President Emmanuel Macron realized that he had to make a concession to the protesters. He raised the minimum wage by €100 ($113) a month, reduced taxes on overtime wages and made a small increase to pensions.

However, when the yellow vests did not disappear from the streets, the government announced a civil discussion: a "grand national debate."

PM tells parliament to take action

During the debate, people were encouraged to vent their frustrations in local discussion groups, letters, emails and via an online platform. The number of entries reached about 2 million. Macron's prime minister, Edouard Philippe, took stock of the figure this week.

He told both houses of parliament — the National Assembly and the Senate — that the government must cut taxes more quickly than planned, restore confidence in politics and state institutions, and renew democracy.

The debate revealed that overall, people also wanted action for the environment but were not willing to pay higher taxes for it. Some of these demands thus seem contradictory and or difficult to fulfill.

Election campaign 2.0

Economist Gregory Claeys from Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank, says many of these promises resulting from the national debate are the same as were made in Macron's election campaign. Claeys views this as cherry picking; the government is in essence only selecting points already in line with its agenda. "For example, many citizens brought up public services, which the prime minister no longer mentions."

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and President Emmanuel Macron
The prime minister (l.) has had to help the president (r.) sell his reforms to both the public and parliamentImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Blondet Eliot/Maxppp

But Macron continues to stall on reforming France's bloated public sector because it is particularly sensitive — he was the first president in France's history to promise to reduce the number of civil servants. If he appeases the yellow vests on certain topics, the public sector issue could become his next big problem.

Participation lower than touted

The government celebrated the end of the national debate as a democratic success. However, French daily Le Monde pointed out the limits of its method.

The newspaper reported that 1.9 million of the entries came from a single online platform which, after closer analysis, contained duplicates or empty fields in over 50 percent of its entries. Most entries contained less than ten words, and only about 250,000 people had filled in a question at all, the paper reported.

Moreover, opposition leaders — Marine Le Pen from right-wing National Rally and Jean-Luc Melenchon from left-wing France Unbowed — rejected any form of participation in the debate, saying they considered it a form of government campaign.

French left-wing opposition leader Jean-Luc Melenchon
Left-wing opposition leader Jean-Luc Melenchon has refused to cooperate with Macron, likening his grand national debate to a sort of rebooted, government-run election campaignImage: Getty Images/AFP/C. Simon

The majority of the yellow vests — people like Lilian and his friends from Paris — also boycotted the discussion rounds. "I went to one of these events, but I wasn't allowed to speak at all," says the 39-year-old. "Only the elected representatives and the organizer had their say." After this experience, he stopped going altogether.

The yellow vests have started their own dialogue, which they call the "true debate." One of their most important concerns is the call for citizens' initiatives: "That is what people really want, and we're continuing to protest for that," says Lilian.

Read more: Yellow vests march on as Macron ups security

Slippery slope on tax cuts?

If Macron were to give in to more demands stemming from the national debate, he would have to make further tax cuts. Economic expert Claeys is skeptical. He says the government has already done a lot to increase purchasing power: "Workers will notice the reduction in social security contributions this year in their increased net wage.

For most taxpayers, Macron abolished local taxes, which were particularly burdensome for those living in rural areas. "The abolition of this tax is a real relief for many French people," explains Claeys.

At the beginning of the year the government also increased social benefits for low income earners. But the French president can fundamentally not afford to make any concessions if he wants to comply with EU regulations on the national debt. Many saw his idea of the national debate merely as a clever but inexpensive idea to appease the population. The further tax cuts now being called could become a serious problem for Macron. The president is set to address the country before Easter and offer concrete suggestions. What exactly he will put on the table is as yet unclear.