French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday will attempt to turn the corner on two months of often violent anti-government protests by launching a nationwide debate over the grievances fuelling the “yellow vest” movement.
Macron will travel to the northern town of Grand Bourgtheroulde to kickstart a “great national debate”, the central plank of his bid to turn around his embattled presidency.
The 41-year-old centrist is hoping that by returning to the sort of participative democracy he championed during his grassroots election campaign he will take the heat out of the yellow vest revolt, which enjoys widespread support.
He will meet with 600 mayors who will relay the concerns aired by residents in their towns and villages.
The meeting sounds the start of two months of public consultations in towns and villages across the country on four main themes: taxation; France’s transition to a low-carbon economy; democracy and citizenship, and the functioning of the state and public services.
Security was tight for his visit in Grand Bourgtheroulde, a town of 3,500 people about 30 kilometres from the city of Rouen where a yellow vest demonstration on Saturday ended in clashes with police.
Macron, who has avoided public gatherings since being booed during two outings in December, was expected to spend more than two hours listening to the mayors’ feedback.
– ‘No forbidden questions’ –
In an open letter to the French on Sunday listing more than 30 questions for debate he said he hoped “as many as possible” would participate in townhall-style discussions around the country.
Assuring that there were “no forbidden questions” he said: “We won’t agree on everything, that’s normal, that’s democracy. But at least we’ll show we are a people who are not afraid to talk, exchange and debate.”
Following the two-month debate Macron said he would come up with a “new contract for the nation”.
Many yellow vests have however reacted sceptically to the initiative, calling it a smokescreen designed to sap the strength of their movement.
They point to the government’s setting of red lines, including its refusal to consider bringing back a controversial wealth tax on high earners, as proof that it has already decided the outcome of the dialogue.
Analysts and many in Macron’s own party fear the consultations will spur a cascade of nebulous demands or calls for the repeal of longstanding laws, such as those that abolished the death penalty or allowed gay marriage.
An Elabe poll Tuesday showed the French feeling lukewarm about the consultations, with 40 per cent saying they intended to participate but 66 per cent saying they did not think it would end the yellow vest protests.
The task of organising the forums has fallen to local government minister Sebastien Lecornu and junior environment minister Emmanuelle Wargon. Five independent auditors will be appointed to ensure the debates remain free of government interference.
The yellow vest protests began in mid-November over fuel tax increases seen as unfairly weighing on rural and small town inhabitants who depend on their cars for transport.
Since then they have snowballed into a broader push to tackle inequality and give citizens more of a say in government decision-making, including the possibility of Swiss-style citizen-sponsored referendums.
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