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Can Macron’s ‘great national debate’ calm yellow vest protesters?

Paris, France | AFP | Emmanuel Macron swept away France’s traditional parties in 2017 with a grassroots campaign that promised more participative democracy. He is hoping the same tactics will now defuse the biggest crisis of his presidency.

The centrist leader is gearing up what he has termed the “great national debate”, a public consultation to discuss the “essential questions” facing the nation after nearly two months of violent so-called yellow vest protests.

The debate is the third prong of the 41-year-old’s strategy for ending the demonstrations, which erupted over high fuel taxes but ballooned into a widely supported revolt over living standards.65+

Macron has already opened the state’s purse strings, scrapping fuel tax hikes as part of a 10-billion-euro ($11.5-billion) package of wage boosts and tax relief for low earners.

At the same time, the government has vowed to crack down on the Saturday protests in Paris and other cities since November, with their now-routine scenes of burning cars, smashed up shops and clashes with police.

The “great national debate”, which will see town-hall meetings held around the country, is Macron’s attempt to satisfy yellow vest demands for a greater say in the running of the country, amid accusations that he is too high-handed and distant.

“We believe in this debate, we think it’s essential,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Wednesday.

“We think that in the current period for our country, we need to be extremely open to having a productive debate, while also being very firm on the functioning of our institutions,” he added.

– Popular frustration –

Macron’s office is trying to corral the discussions into four overarching themes: taxes; France’s transition to a low-carbon economy; democracy and citizenship; and government organisation and public services.

But political scientists warn such consultations can easily be swayed by a small, motivated number of citizens, bringing “results that aren’t at all representative of the majority of the French,” according to Luc Rouban, an academic at the Cevipof political science institute in Paris.

Some MPs in Macron’s own party also fear the consultations will spur a cascade of extravagant or nebulous demands, or calls for an outright repeal of existing laws.

And in France’s right-wing Republicans party, many have painful memories of a debate about “national identity” organised in 2009 under their former leader Nicolas Sarkozy — which led to more divisions.

Ending same-sex marriages, which were approved by the Socialist government in 2013 in the face of massive protests, is at the top of the list of demands made on a website which is compiling the grievances of yellow vest protesters.

Another is overturning the lower 80 km/h (50 mph) speed limit imposed on secondary roads last year, which furious rural drivers have assailed as symbolic of elite Parisians’ disregard for the provinces.

The government has ruled out any backtrack on existing laws, prompting some yellow vest protesters to deride the debates as a smokescreen aimed at smothering the movement.

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