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Macron fights back at launch of great debate

media French President Emmanuel Macron speaks with mayors from rural Normandy at the launch of the "Great National Debate" in Grand Bourgtheroulde, 15 January 2019. Reuters/PHILIPPE WOJAZER

French President Emmanuel Macron held forth Tuesday for close to seven hours at the launch of the great debate in Normandy, aimed at responding to the Yellow Vest protests. But members of the movement remain sceptical.

In his first public outing since the Yellow Vest movement began in mid-November, Macron spoke for seven hours, answering questions from the 600 mayors who will be running debates in their towns over the next two months.

“I see what our country is living through as an opportunity," he said in reference to the Yellow Vest protests, "We have to have this debate and these explanations."

The more combative tone was in marked contrast to the mea culpa he showed in his televised new year's address.

“In moments like this, where the country sometimes has an air of folly, we debate and that’s in our DNA," he continued.

"We always look for someone to blame. I have the impression I’m filling that role,” he quipped. "I accept that and to be honest no one has forced me into being where I am today.”

Fighting to win back support

Macron's popularity has slipped to under 30% and he's campaigning to win back support.

Marie Cousin, head of the mayors of the La Manche region, told RFI he was off to a good start.

“I felt he showed real awareness and a desire to solve problems," she said. "By leaning on the mayors I think he’s giving himself a bit more chance of solving the crisis.”

But some were less impressed by Macron’s seduction operation.

“We’ve told Emmanuel Macron that so long as there’s no movement on the wealth tax, the Yellow Vests will remain on the roundabouts,” mayor Dominique Piat told RFI.

Yellow vests not invited

While the great debate is aimed at responding to the Yellow Vest movement, they were not invited to attend the launch.

Five Yellow Vests were received however in an adjacent room by the secretary in charge of organising the great debate.

“It’s a first step and we have to be part of it," Bruno told RFI. “I’m giving the debate a chance but then we’ll see.”

“We have to participate and make ourselves heard," said Thierry, who travelled from Paris to protest against Macron.

“We have this opportunity to be active, we have to use it.”

Meanwhile Claire from Rouen said she felt she had to participate “so that no one can reproach me for having been given the chance to speak and not using it”.

She was very sceptical however that the debate would deliver much, describing it as a “load of humbug”.

"We're staying mobilised," said Bruno, "not just on Saturdays but every day”.

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