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14.5.2019 | Von:
Nina Henkelmann

France: talking therapy for the nation

France's President Macron has tried to appease the angry "yellow vest" protesters with a nationwide debate, the "grand débat". Has he succeeded in time for the EU Parliament election campaign?

Frankreichs Präsident Emmanuel Macron nimmt am 07.03.2019 an einer Debatte in Sainte-Croix-De-Verdon teil.France's President Macron attending the debate at Sainte-Croix-De-Verdon on the 7th of March 2019. (© picture-alliance, Duclet Stéphane/MAXPPP/dpa)

In the second half of 2018 it seemed that the tide had suddenly turned against Europe's rising star Emmanuel Macron: there was the Benalla affair, a series of ministerial resignations, plummeting poll ratings and to top it all the anger of the citizens, who since mid-November have been protesting against the French president and social injustice wearing high-visibility yellow vests. After four Saturdays of violent protests the Jupiter in the Élysée Palace finally reacted, agreeing to comprehensive concessions: the suspension of fuel tax rises, a minimum wage increase, tax cuts. In addition to gifts from the state coffers, Macron presented an innovative concept for dialogue: a nationwide debate. In an open letter he invited his fellow citizens to take part in online discussions or attend local meetings dealing with taxes and the budget, state organisation, energy policy and democracy.

As soon as he announced his plan, voices of resistance cried out from the opposition: Macron would use the civic dialogue to campaign for the European elections at the state's expense, they claimed. Some media joined in the criticism, but others took a more positive view of the idea: "Who would have thought at the start of November that France would turn into a huge forum? Thank you, yellow vests and Emmanuel Macron, for raising this expectation and making it possible for the country to have its say," the daily newspaper La Croix commented approvingly. According to official figures around one million French citizens took part in the discussions. But as the debate drew to an end Le Monde concluded that its impact had been limited: "The great national debate has not brought any major changes. What it has done is make clear the devastated state politics is in."

During the evaluation phase the great expectations that had been placed in the grand débat withered. According to Le Point disappointment was inevitable since Macron would never be able to please the yellow vests anyway: "When we see the disdain of the yellow vests for concessions to the tune of ten to twelve billion euros, and how they immediately dismissed the civic debates as a sham and a diversionary manoeuvre, one cannot but doubt they will be satisfied with reforms that will inevitably be deemed too timid or financially inadequate."

The measures finally announced by the French head of state on April 25 were described by Libération as "tentative reforms that by no means introduce a sixth republic, but allow the fifth one to breathe more freely". Mediapart, however, was critical of the outcome: "This was less a new start than a correction of methods," it wrote, arguing that all Macron really wants is "to press ahead with the neoliberal reconstruction of the country, counting on tax cuts to restore peace and calm before his hopes of full employment by 2025 are realised." Macron is focussed on the European elections, France 24 underlined: "He has advocated the idea of an annual parliamentary debate on migration policy, called for a reform of the Schengen Area and mentioned 'a political Islam that wants to divide our republic'. But immigration, borders and the fight against radical Islamism are subjects that were barely mentioned by the French in the grand débat. Nevertheless, Emmanuel Macron is making them central issues in the upcoming European elections."

With the French left so fragmented and weakened, Macron sees his most dangerous opponents on the right: Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National, which is more or less neck and neck with Macron's list in the polls, and the conservative Républicains, who thanks to their lead candidate François-Xavier Bellamy are making headway once more.

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