Paris, France | AFP | Facing the biggest test of his presidency, President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday launched a series of public forums inviting voters to express their concerns and hopes after two months of anti-government protests.
Here’s how the government plans to carry out its “Great National Debate”, aimed at quelling the “yellow vest” anger over inequality and Macron’s perceived indifference to the struggles of rural and small-town France.
– What’s happening? –
The two months of debates will run until March 15, and Macron has pledged to respond to the proposals within the following month in order to forge “a new contract with the nation.”
In the first stage, town-hall style meetings will be organised on a voluntary basis by mayors or residents who will have access to local auditoriums and other facilities.
Macron will participate in the first debate Tuesday with some 600 mayors from the Normandy region in the village of Grand Bourgtheroulde, northwest France.
Already hundreds of mayors in villages and towns across France have set out registers for people to list their grievances.
Starting January 21 people can also make proposals online at www.granddebat.fr, which will include a schedule of debates by region, or by mail.
From March 1 the government will begin holding “regional citizen conferences” consisting of around 100 people chosen by drawing lots.
These are intended to summarise the main findings from the debates and establish concrete proposals for Macron’s consideration.
– What’s up for discussion? –
In an open letter to voters published Sunday, Macron wrote that “there are no forbidden questions.”
But his office nonetheless hopes to corral the discussions into four overarching themes: Taxation; France’s transition to a low-carbon economy; democracy and citizenship; the functioning of government and public services.
Macron also made clear that he would not back down on key measures already taken in his drive to overhaul the French economy, including the partial scrapping of a wealth tax last year that infuriated many yellow vests.
His establishment of red lines has led many of the protesters and opposition parties to dismiss the debate as a smokescreen.
One recurring demand among rural-dwellers is for the repeal of a new lower 80 km/h (50 mph) speed limit on most secondary roads, which Interior Minister Christophe Castaner indicated Monday could be on the table.
Analysts and many in Macron’s own party fear the consultations will spur a cascade of nebulous demands or calls for repeals of longstanding laws, such as those that abolished the death penalty or allowed gay marriage.
– Who’s in charge? –
The task of organising the forums has fallen to local government minister Sebastien Lecornu and junior environment minister Emmanuelle Wargon.
They were named after the head of France’s national debates commission dropped out after coming under heavy criticism over her nearly 15,000-euro ($17,000) monthly salary.
In addition, five independent auditors will be appointed to ensure the debates remain free of government interference.
At the local level, organisers will be given documentation kits with economic and statistical talking points aimed at avoiding endless shouting matches.
The government also plans to create a committee of lawmakers from all parties to follow the debates, and have also reached out to trade unions and local associations.
– What are the goals? –
In his letter Macron acknowledged: “We won’t agree on everything, that’s normal, that’s democracy.”
The stakes are high for the president, analysts say, since he needs to show he is willing to take criticism on board and revise a reform drive which protesters say benefits well-off city-dwellers the most.
The yellow vest protests erupted in November over fuel tax increases seen as unfairly weighing on provincial voters 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.
“Our country is going through a period which clearly shows we must strengthen our democracy and citizenship,” Macron wrote in his letter.
“This representative system is the pillar of our republic, but it must be improved because too many feel they are not being represented after elections are held.”