Macron starts debate to soothe yellow-vest anger

Yellow Vests protesters take part in the Act IX demonstration, or the ninth consecutive national protest on a Saturday in Bordeaux, France, on Jan 12, 2019.
Yellow Vests protesters take part in the Act IX demonstration, or the ninth consecutive national protest on a Saturday in Bordeaux, France, on Jan 12, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

French leader seeks to transform national unrest into solutions but makes clear he is not quitting

PARIS • President Emmanuel Macron faced a battle yesterday to convince the sceptical French of his latest move to quell "yellow vest" anger as he kick-started a two-month national debate on his policies.

Mr Macron, who is struggling to end the biggest crisis of his presidency, on Sunday set out 35 questions to be debated in towns and villages across the country between Jan 15 and March 15.

"We won't agree on everything, that's normal, that's democracy. But at least we'll show we're a people that is not afraid to talk, exchange and debate," he wrote in his "Letter to the French".

The missive followed a ninth consecutive Saturday of nationwide "yellow vest" rallies which saw an uptick in turnout but less violence than previous demonstrations over the past two months.

Mr Macron hopes that returning to more participative democracy - a key feature of his 2017 grassroots election campaign - will satisfy the protesters' demands for a greater say in the running of the country.

"I intend to transform anger into solutions," he wrote, promising "a new contract for the nation".

But he made clear there was no question of him resigning, saying the debates, which will revolve around taxation, democracy, the environment and immigration, were "neither an election nor a referendum".

WON'T AGREE ON EVERYTHING

We won't agree on everything, that's normal, that's democracy. But at least we'll show we're a people that is not afraid to talk, exchange and debate.

FRENCH PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON

Within the ranks of the "yellow vests", reactions were mixed, with some welcoming Mr Macron's letter but many calling it a government smokescreen.

"A debate means discussing everything. When you say we're going to debate, but not about that, that, that and that... that's called 'shut up and listen to me'," Mr Maxime Nicolle, one of the movement's most prominent figures, said on YouTube.

In its editorial yesterday, the left-wing Liberation daily called the missive an attempt by Mr Macron "to save the three years he has left" as President. "The exercise is all the more perilous given the mood in the country, which is extremely grumpy," the paper added.

In an Odoxa-Dentsu poll published last week, 32 per cent of respondents said they would take part in the debate but 70 per cent said they did not believe it would lead to significant change.

The questions that will be debated include: "Which taxes do you think should be lowered first?", "Should some public services that are out of date or too expensive be eliminated?", "What concrete proposals do you think would accelerate our environmental transition?" and "Should we use more referendums?"

 
 
 

A question about immigration asked: "Once our asylum obligations are fulfilled, do you want Parliament to be able to set annual targets?"

While Mr Macron assured that there were "no forbidden questions", he did say that there was no question of bringing back the death penalty, banning abortion or ending the right to seek asylum.

He also said the government would not revisit steps taken "to encourage investment and make work pay more" - seen as a slapdown of the "yellow vests" demand for him to reinstate the fortune tax he partly repealed last year for high earners.

The hard-left France Unbowed party, which has been vying with the far-right National Rally to be seen as chief champion of the "yellow vests" cause, accused him of predetermining the outcome.

"The people may debate, but Jupiter decides," Mr Eric Coquerel, a France Unbowed MP tweeted, referring to Mr Macron mockingly by his nickname, the king of the gods in Roman times.

Mr Macron has promised to report back on the consultation a month after the debates wind up.

Today, he will embark on a tour of town hall meetings around the country, the first of which will be held with local mayors in Bourgtheroulde in north-west France.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2019, with the headline 'Macron starts debate to soothe yellow-vest anger'. Print Edition | Subscribe