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Macron outlines themes for 'National Debate' in open letter to Yellow Vests

media French President Emmanuel Macron called on Yellow Vest protesters to "transform anger into solutions" in an open letter released Sunday, 13 January 2018. Reuters/Ludovic Marin

French President Emmanuel Macron laid out the themes of a “great national debate” to address questions driving the Yellow Vest movement in an open letter published Sunday. The letter comes after the ninth consecutive weekend of nationwide protests saw a growth in turnout.

Macron made his appeal in a “letter to the French” released on Sunday evening, saying the debate would be “neither an election nor a referendum” and would revolve around 35 questions on issues including taxation, democracy, the environment and migration.

“I intent to transform anger into solutions,” the letter read. “Your proposals will help build a new contract for the nation, organising the actions of the government and parliament, but also France’s positions at the European and international levels.”

Questions ask what taxes should be lowered first, what public services are too expensive and should be eliminated, what concrete proposals would facilitate transition to a more sustainable economy and whether there should be more referendums.

Macron said there were “no forbidden questions” but also warned that his government would not go back on measures “to encourage investment and make work pay more.”

One of the most frequent demands of protesters is for the government to reinstate a tax on the wealthy that Macron’s administration scrapped on the basis of encouraging competition and growth.

The Yellow Vests protests, which have drawn hundreds of thousands of people to sometimes violent rallies and blockades since mid-November, have become the biggest challenge of Macron’s presidency.

Despite Macron’s announcement 10 billion euros’ worth of measures to boost salaries and cut taxes on 10 December, weekly protests have continued. Numbers of participants fell over the holidays but began to rise on Saturday.

A key issue motivating the protesters and now even reaching the debate itself is the perception that Macron’s administration is operating in the interests of the rich and is out of touch with the realities of ordinary people.

Chantal Jouanno, a lawmaker who was to lead the commission piloting the debate, withdrew her participation last week following outrage over her 14,666-euro monthly salary.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was to name Jouanno’s replacement and provide more details about debate’s format on Monday. It has already been announced that debates are to run from 15 January to 15 March and will involve Macron visiting town halls around the country.

Protestors and opposition politicians responded to Macron’s letter by questioning the sincerity of the debate.

Benjamin Cauchy, one of the movement’s self-appointed spokespersons, said the outcome of the debate “is already known. Emmanuel Macron is letting us know this will serve no real purpose. What a lack of respect.”

“A great debate? A great distraction,” tweeted Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left-wing France Unbowed movement. “We’re redoing the debate of the presidential election but the government has already determined the results.”

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