French president launches “Great National Debate” to resolve social crisis

World Today

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures during a meeting as part of the “great national debate” in Courcouronnes, on Monday Feb. 4, 2019. (Ludovic Marin Pool via AP)

French President Emmanuel Macron is back on the offensive after the so-called “Yellow Vest” protest movement brought tens of thousands of people into the streets. He launched a “great national debate” aimed at encouraging residents to take part in a series of discussions to resolve the social crisis. CGTN’s Elena Casas reports from the Rhone region.

Facing months of angry street protests and accusations he’s deaf to the concerns of ordinary people, Emmanuel Macron said he wants to stop talking and listen.

“There should be no taboos as we speak. We must try to deal with these subjects as they stand in order to talk about the great divisions I mentioned,” Macron said.

The French president himself hosted half a dozen debates, taking questions for five or six hours at a time. In Rhone valley, a local member of parliament was doing the same.

It is in small that the yellow vests have attracted most support, and it is in small towns that Macron and his MPs aim to take the National Debate. Books of grievances have been placed in town halls across the country, so that ordinary voters can write down their complaints and suggest their solutions.

But when Jean-Luc Fugit, the local pro-Macron MP, got to the debate hall, the yellow vests were waiting for him.

“If the president thinks that this is going to calm people’s anger, he couldn’t be more wrong, since even while we’re talking, and he’s touring France amusing the French, he knows exactly what he’s going to do, he’s already made all the decisions,” Yellow Vest protester Patrice Magnan said.

Despite their cynicism, local yellow vest protesters took part in the debate saying they wanted to scrap tax breaks for big companies, along with consumption taxes on basic goods.

A popular idea, but, the locals made sure it wasn’t just the yellow vests who got a say.

“I think the frustration of the yellow vest protesters is mostly about taxes and the economy, so that has to be the first thing to tackle, but for me as a 20-something, it’s more important to talk about the environment and what kind of society we want to build. I think we need to talk about all these things to solve the crisis but also find real solutions for the future,” Local resident Mathilde Philippe said.

Critics of the idea said Macron and his MPs are using the debate, with just four months to go before crucial European elections, as a covert election campaign run with public money.

MP Jean-Luc Fugit said it is no such thing.

“We’d have been criticized if we hadn’t done it, and we’re being criticized for doing it – I’m just going to keep on with the national debate, giving everyone a chance to express themselves. This isn’t an election campaign, I haven’t talked very much this evening, the idea is to listen to the French,” Fugit said.

The debate has allowed Macron to put off controversial policy decisions for two months while touring the country. Reports said he’s now considering putting some of the proposals from the “great debate” to a referendum, hoping to win over doubters by giving French voters the final say.