In a letter to the French on Sunday, President Macron explained his idea of a Great National Debate and today he is in a small Normandy town to launch it.
Over the next 2 months until March 15th it is hoped that meetings will be organised by Mayors up and down the country to allow people to argue and exchange on key issues.
Ordinary individuals can also set up smaller debates if they give 7 days’ notice of the date, place and the number of people expected to attend. And of course there will be an online version.
Change anger into solutions
For Macron it is vital that ‘le Grand Débat’ is a success.
The mass consultation is an urgent attempt to try to address the rage and frustration beneath the populist Yellow Vest movement. Macron urged the French in his letter to join with him to turn the anger into solutions.
In the run up to the launch, municipal buildings laid out special books for people to write down the causes of their anger and concern and to suggest reforms.
600 Mayors from towns and villages in Normandy will tell Macron today what the exercise revealed, before the president embarks on a tour of every region of France.
Local elected representatives are reporting that greater purchasing power is a key demand, closely followed by anger over what is seen as unfair tax system.
The ISF, a wealth tax is a particular source of anger.
Macron abolished it shortly after becoming president, keen to convey to entrepreneurs that France was comfortable with financial success.
But the president has insisted that he will not re introduce the wealth tax. This has led critics to claim that the Debate is pointless as Macron will not listen or change his plans for the country.
A significant number of people used the books to criticize MPs’ privileges, perks and salaries and many said there should be fewer MPs.
Immigration, integration up for debate?
When he first publicly addressed the concerns of the Gilets Jaunes on December 10th, Emmanuel Macron appeared to allude to issues surrounding religious minorities and integration.
But in the first draft of probable themes up for discussion in the Grand Débat, the subject had disappeared.
In Macron’s letter on Sunday explaining the Debate to the French people, immigration, integration and issues concerning the place of religion in France were firmly back on the agenda.
Will the Grand Débat National achieve anything?
For Macron and the government it is crucial that people get involved. If participation is low, the opinions and conclusions which emerge from the debate will be deemed unrepresentative.
Some opposition politicians say the French should give the idea a chance.
Bruno Rétailleau of the opposition LR party said it was important take part ‘because there is too much hate”. A prominent Ecology party politician Yannick Jadot said there was a climate of civil war in the country, advising that the debate could help heal divisions.
But others, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the far left LFI, labelled the debate a “huge diversion” and Jordan Benalla of the RN (formerly Front National party) called it “hot air”.
In a poll for OpinionWay, 47% of French people said they intend to join the Debate, though another poll showed that 71 per cent expect violence at the venues.
Several organizational elements of the Debate have yet to be clarified.
There will be official guarantors of independence but they have not yet been named.
And although the government insists the Debate will lead to concrete measures, it is not yet clear how.
Some Yellow Vest protestors have dismissed the Debate already, demanding instead that the constitution be changed to allow more referendums in France.
President Macron, no doubt with an eye on Britain’s Brexit tangle, has shown no enthusiasm for that idea.