President Emmanuel Macron will on Tuesday launch a two-month "great national debate" about how France is governed, in the hope of salvaging the remaining 3½ years of his term in office.
The French leader's popularity and credibility have been battered by the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) revolt, which started as a protest against carbon tax in mid-November. He promised to hold a national debate in a televised address on December 10th, in which he also offered €10 billion in public spending to increase the purchasing power of the disadvantaged.
In a “Letter to the French People” released by the Élysée on Sunday night and published in most French newspapers on Monday, Macron outlined the four themes of the debate: taxation and public spending, the structure of the state and public services, ecology and citizenship.
Macron began his six-page letter with an indirect acknowledgement of the gilets jaunes. "France is not like other countries," he wrote. "The sense of injustice is more intense than elsewhere. The demand for mutual aid and solidarity is stronger... Some of us today are dissatisfied or angry."
He said he intended “to transform anger into solutions, with you”, adding that proposals from ordinary citizens would make it possible “to build a new contract for the Nation”.
Some of the 32 questions Macron addressed to his compatriots were worthy of a Baccalaureat examination: “How could one make our fiscal policy more just and more efficient?”; “Are there too many levels of administration or local government?”; “How should the State be organised and how can it improve its action?”; “How can we scientifically guarantee the choices that we make regarding biodiversity?”
Negative reactions were foreseeable. The hard-core gilets jaunes want Macron to resign, not tinker with government policies. And the French political parties that were decimated by him in the 2017 elections carelessly revel in anything that weakens him, unaware that they are undermining the system to which they belong.
"No subjects are prohibited," Macron wrote. Yet he excluded reconsideration of his abrogation of the ISF wealth tax on capital, a key demand of the gilets jaunes.
In coded language alluding to the ISF, Macron said that when taxes were too high, “they deprive our economy of resources that could be invested in enterprise, creating jobs and growth... We will not go back on the measures we took to correct that, to encourage investment.
"One doesn't summon the French to a debate while forbidding them to talk about the former ISF," said Olivier Faure, first secretary of the Socialist party.
"The people debate. Jupiter will decide," said Éric Coquerel, of the far left party France Unbowed, using Macron's nickname. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, leader of Debout la France, a small far right party allied with the gilets jaunes, accused Macron of "buying time... enough blah-blah!"
It is perhaps surprising that Macron, a history buff, has chosen the same method devised by King Louis XVI to address a revolt 230 years ago. The ill-fated king held a three-month consultation with the Third Estate – the people – based on registries of grievances such as those collected in French town halls over the past month.
Organising the debate has been a fraught process. The Élysée initially said that immigration was too explosive an issue, and would be addressed later. Macron has surprised some by including it after all, despite the fact that no one is clamouring for a new immigration policy. “In terms of immigration, once we have satisfied our obligation to receive asylum-seekers, do you want us to fix annual objectives as defined by parliament?” he asked in his letter.
The provision is interpreted as a sop to the conservative electorate, which has been horrified by the violence of rioting and is gravitating towards Macron. François Fillon, the conservative presidential candidate whose campaign was derailed by a financial scandal, had promised to have parliament set annual ceilings on immigration.
After largely ignoring local government while he micro-managed France during his first year in office, Macron has given the country’s 36,000 mayors “an essential role” in the “great debate”, which he will kick off in a small town in Normandy on Tuesday.