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Macron's Great Debate: a turning point or 'puffed-up nonsense'?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Angelique Chrisafis in Cherbourg and Caen
Emmanuel Macron et al. standing in front of a crowd: Emmanuel Macron speaks during an event in Etang-sur-Arroux as part of his ‘great national debate’. © AFP/Getty Images Emmanuel Macron speaks during an event in Etang-sur-Arroux as part of his ‘great national debate’.

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

On a windswept night in the northern French port of Cherbourg, Brigitte, a health insurance worker, stood up at a town hall meeting that she hoped might change the future of France.

“I hear a lot of people criticising the president’s wife, Brigitte Macron, for wearing designer trainers worth thousands of euros,” she said. “I understand she has to represent French designer brands. But let’s look at other presidential costs. Why doesn’t the president, Emmanuel Macron, entertain visiting heads of states more frugally? If he hosted state visits sitting on a bale of hay with a mug of cider, it would send a clear message to the rest of France on reducing unnecessary costs.”

One pensioner shouted: “And they could use paper plates, not the new presidential dinner plates they just spent €50,000 on!” A retired teacher said the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, went home at night and did her own shopping, yet France had a 365-room presidential palace that cost more than €100m a year to run. “That’s because in France we still have still a type of king,” sighed a trade unionist.

For four hours, more than 100 citizens thrashed out their views on fat-cat pay, inequality in the tax system and Macron’s much-criticised drive to privatise certain state-controlled enterprises. A 16-year-old volunteer logged all comments in neat writing to send to the presidency.

Macron’s “Great Debate” – a vast, unprecedented nationwide exercise in consulting citizens on how to fix France’s problems – is the latest attempt by the centrist president to try to bring an end to almost three months of spectacular anti-government revolt by the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement.

Macron’s idea to run thousands of local meetings was at first likened by some critics to the ill-fated consultation exercise by King Louis XVI in 1789. The king sought to quell popular discontent but instead saw the start of the French revolution and four years later lost his head at the guillotine.

In photos: France protests [Photo Services]

But although the gilets jaunes are continuing to protest – one demonstrator lost part of his hand during clashes with police in Paris this weekend – Macron’s dire approval ratings have slowly begun to rise in recent weeks. Only around 34% of French people say they approve of the way he runs France, but he has regained some support, mainly on the right but also among some on the left.

Two months ago, at the height of protests, it was hard for Macron to leave the confines of his presidential palace without getting heckled and jeered. Now he has made several six-hour appearances at carefully organised debates across France. Speaking to local mayors and select young people, he has rolled up his shirt sleeves and defended his policies through a handheld microphone in what has been nicknamed “The Macron Show”.

There is concern over whether citizens’ suggestions will be taken onboard. Macron has refused to change his stance on liberalising the economy and overhauling the welfare state. The government is braced for protests to continue for several more months.

The street demonstrations in Paris this weekend showed a new focus of anger against political institutions, with the French parliament and senate targeted. One protester in Normandy on Saturday had written on his yellow vest: “Bring back the guillotine.”

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting with farmers at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, February 11, 2019. Ian Langsdon/Pool via Reuters © Ian Langsdon/Pool via Reuters French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting with farmers at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, February 11, 2019. Ian Langsdon/Pool via Reuters The country home of Richard Ferrand, the leader of the lower house of parliament and a key Macron ally, was targeted in an arson attack this weekend. No group claimed responsibility and the investigation is ongoing. Ministers blamed a climate of violence against politicians sparked by the gilets jaunes protests. 

More than 80 lawmakers from Macron’s party, La République En Marche, are said to have been targeted with written threats or attacks on their homes and offices since the start of the revolt. One MP woke up to find her home’s driveway had been bricked up in the night. Others have had cars burnt and windows smashed.

Cherbourg, across the Channel from Dorset, has seen regular gilets jaunes demonstrations. The industrial port town and the villages surrounding it face some of the problems that sparked the revolt in November. The area’s poor transport links means people are dependent on cars and expensive fuel. There are complaints about a lack of local doctors and about the closure of public services in the surrounding countryside.

At the debate, many talked about a lack of trust in elected officials. “I don’t even know why I vote any more,” said one engineer.

Cherbourg’s MP, Sonia Krimi, won the traditionally leftwing town for Macron’s centrist party in 2017. She is known as an independent voice who has opposed some government moves, including a new law clamping down on protesters, on which 50 of Macron’s lawmakers abstained last week. She also raised eyebrows within her party for briefly donning a yellow vest during a meeting with protesters.

Leading the Cherbourg debate, she insisted Macron would take into account all issues raised. “He won’t go back on the measures he’s taken so far,” she said. “But this is going to be a turning point.”

TOPSHOT - A picture taken on January 29, 2019 in Paris shows a mural by French artist collective Black Lines and depicting a man wounded in the eye and reading 'What does the police ? It's so obvious' (Que fait la Police? Ca creve les yeux!). - French anti-government 'yellow vest' activist, badly injured in the eye at a protest, was struck with one of the controversial rubber bullets used by police, his lawyer said on January 27, 2019. The devices -- which are not used in most European countries -- have become deeply controversial in France since the protests began in November, blamed for dozens of serious injuries. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by Thomas SAMSON has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: French artist collective Black Lines instead of French street artist Vince. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require.        (Photo credit should read THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images) © THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images TOPSHOT - A picture taken on January 29, 2019 in Paris shows a mural by French artist collective Black Lines and depicting a man wounded in the eye and reading 'What does the police ? It's so obvious' (Que fait la Police? Ca creve les yeux!). - French anti-government 'yellow vest' activist, badly injured in the eye at a protest, was struck with one of the controversial rubber bullets used by police, his lawyer said on January 27, 2019. The devices -- which are not used in most European countries -- have become deeply controversial in France since the protests began in November, blamed for dozens of serious injuries. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by Thomas SAMSON has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: French artist collective Black Lines instead of French street artist Vince. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require. (Photo credit should read THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images) Some are concerned that those turning up to the debates are mainly older and retired. “Where are the young people?” said one retired port worker.

After some gilets jaunes in the Cherbourg area blocked McDonald’s drive-throughs, many insisted multinationals must be made to pay more tax. Protesters in the north and the south-east have blocked Amazon logistics sites. The French government has promised a new national tax on internet firms such as Google and Facebook.

In the Normandy town of Caen, as hundreds of gilets jaunes gathered for another street protest, some carried signs saying “The Great Debate is just blah, blah, blah”.

Chantal, a former healthcare assistant in a retirement home, said she had written in the “grievance book” at her local village hall, but she added: “This Macron debate is all puffed-up nonsense. It’s stage-managed, he’s not listening to the little people. Us gilets jaunes are here for the long-term. I’d rather not have to spend my weekends protesting, but I’m not giving up now.”


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