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France

Eye on France: The final word on the great national debate

media French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe telling the French what they told him. Reuters

Yesterday, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe launched what is being rather pompously called “the restitution of the great national debate”. In other words, the government is now telling the people what the people have been telling the government over the past three months in public discussions and by internet.

Millions of words of written notes were collected. There were 530,000 on-line contributions. In total, one-and-a-half million French participated.

Restitution is going to be no easy matter.

But Edouard Philippe is not a man to be buried under an avalanche of words. Taking less than 20 minutes to wrap up the whole job, the prime minister got straight to the point: the French want to pay less tax. Ah-ha!

Five months of riots, pitched battles and public palaver have led to this! The French are confused about what their money is being spent on; they are, to quote the prime minister, “fiscally exasperated”; they want more justice and fairness in the way the tax burden is distributed. They want to be sure the public services they finance are being run as efficiently as possible.

That’s the broad burden of 48 percent of the on-line messages collected during the great debate.

Business paper Les Echos points out that the internet responses have come predominantly from urban households, and are not, therefore, representative of the population as a whole.

But there’s no getting away from the question of taxation.

Taxation for everyone

Among the most frequent propositions for change is the suggestion that everyone should pay tax. And then come demands for less tax, reduced tax bands, an end to offshore and other frauds to help the stinky rich hold onto their ill-gottens. Ten percent want to see the return of wealth tax, a surprisingly low figure given the anger directed at President Emmanuel Macron for his refusal to rack the rich.

Many people think the reduction of Value Added Tax, especially on essential goods and services, is the way to go.

We are all in favour of the environment, but few are prepared to pay an extra tax to save icebergs, polar bears, monarch butterflies or the Texas prairie chicken.

And while just 4 percent are in favour of paying more tax, 75 percent would like to see less public spending.

Specifically mentioned for cuts are defence, housing, the salaries of senior civil servants and the number of MPs.

The French would also like to see less administrative paperwork and complexity, especially in the health sector.

Searching for the correct balance

Right-wing Le Figaro is underwhelmed by the whole business, suggesting in an editorial that simultaneously cutting public spending and reducing the tax bill is the philosopher’s stone of all governments.

Le Figaro readers are far from convinced, 75,000 of them voting in today’s poll on the question of whether the great debate will result in a lowering of taxes. Eighty-five percent of them think not.

Centrist paper Le Monde notes that more than half the internet contributions to the debate were exact copies of earlier messages. Which is perhaps a sign of economy: if my point has already been well made by someone else, why not just re-use the original formulation.

Except that some people seem to have repeated their own message dozens, in some cases, hundreds, of times.

In actual fact, only 255,003 people actually wrote an original contribution to the debate, with just 39,834 addressing all of the four major themes.

Edouard Philippe is happy that the great debate has at least allowed for a return to normal service, where people engage in polite discussion rather than in anonymous insult.

Today, the prime minister will present his synopsis to the National Assembly, before facing the senators in the upper house tomorrow.

The point then will be to start putting the public propositions into political shape, translating all that anger and angst into laws which will improve the situation.

The real fun and games are still to come.

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