(Bloomberg) -- Emmanuel Macron next week launches a three-month national debate that he hopes will dissipate the anger displayed in the recent violent protests, without derailing the reforms he insists France needs.
The French president promised the “Great National Debate” Nov. 27 as part of his response to the so-called “Yellow Vests” movement, which was to oppose higher gasoline taxes before it morphed into a general clamor about the cost of living and the state of democracy in France.
Opposition leaders and much of the press have mocked the debate, whose launch has been marred by missteps and confusion over its contours. But public interest in the debate is greater than the disdain expressed in the media would suggest, said Bernard Sananes, president of polling company Elabe.
“The politicians are wrong to say it serves no purpose because one of the main lessons from the Yellow Vests is that there’s a demand of the French public to have their opinions heard,” said Sananes. “That doesn’t mean it will be a success -- that’s outside of the competence of a poll -- and there’s a risk the disappointment could be even greater if the interest is high.”
An Elabe poll released Thursday said 41 percent of the French will take part in the debate, and 40 percent will not. The poll also put support for the Yellow Vests at 60 percent, down 10 points from a month ago, a decline confirmed in other polls.
French police are preparing for a ninth straight Saturday of protests. Paris police chief Michel Delpuech said on CNews television Friday that the number of protesters has declined each weekend, but the level of violence of the remaining demonstrators has increased. The government is mobilizing 80,000 officers nationwide and 5,000 in the capital.
Macron will launch the debates next week, first with an on-line “letter to the French,” and then with a Jan. 15 visit to a small town west of Paris, where he’ll meet local mayors who are expected to play a major role in running the debates.
The government will publish a “kit” on how to organize the debates, which in theory can be done by anyone. Local town halls have already put out “grievance notebooks” where citizens can write any complaints or suggestions they may have, a French practice dating back to before the 1789 Revolution.
The government has listed four themes for the debate: ecological transition, public finances, democracy, and the state’s organization, with ministers sending conflicting signals about whether other issues can be discussed. The debate will be the foundation for new measures and draft laws introduced as early as April, with the possibility of a referendum to approve the most far-reaching demands.
Marine Le Pen, whose National Rally party is expected to get the most votes in May’s European elections, has panned the debates, above all because Macron said he’ll continue with planned money-saving changes to France’s retirement and unemployment insurance systems.
“They say we will have a debate but we’ll continue on our path,” she said in an interview at her headquarters near Paris. “They say the debate is open and then they say here are only four things you’re allowed to debate.” Far-left and center-right parties have made the same criticism.
While media reports have focused on demands from Yellow Vests leaders to make more policy through referendums, the French are much more interested in issues dealing with purchasing power and taxes, Sananes said.
The process comes at a crucial moment in Macron’s five-year term, which he began with a flurry of unpopular overhauls of labor laws and taxes. The Yellow Vest protests have tested his resolve to keep up the pace of reform and already forced him into U-turns on tax policies that will prove costly for public finances.
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