French President Emmanuel Macron attempted Tuesday to rebound from two months of often violent anti-government protests by launching a nationwide debate over the grievances fuelling the ‘yellow vest’ movement.
Macron travelled to the northern town of Grand Bourgtheroulde to kickstart what he has billed as a ‘great national debate’ which he hopes will help turn around his presidency.
The 41-year-old centrist passed a group of ‘yellow vest’ protesters, some of whom shouted ‘Macron resign’, en route to his meeting with 600 mayors which was broadcast live on French news channels for more three hours.
In his opening remarks to the gathering in the sports hall of the town, Macron promised that all the questions raised by citizens would be given consideration.
‘There can be no taboos,’ he said in answer to accusations that he has tried to limit the scope of the debate to tally with his reform agenda.
Defending himself for over an hour against charges that he has exacerbated inequality and neglected the provinces, he said: ‘People always want someone to blame. I feel that I’m fulfilling that role and I accept it.’
He again ruled out immediately repealing his controversial cuts to wealth taxes on high earners but said: ‘If some of the measures taken over the past 20 months were misguided they will be corrected.’
‘Two-speed France’
Macron’s poll ratings had already been in freefall before hundreds of thousands of protesters from rural and small-town France rose up in mid-November over fuel taxes.
The protests snowballed into an anti-government revolt, with tens of thousands of demonstrators taking part in weekly rallies in Paris and other big cities that have regularly ended in clashes with police and vehicles being torched.
Macron is hoping that returning to the sort of participative democracy he had championed during his grassroots election campaign will take the heat out of the protests.
On Tuesday, several mayors spoke of a sense of abandonment and dwindling public services in sparsely populated rural areas.
‘We feel as if there is a two-speed France and wonder if we’re not in the B category,’ Jean-Paul Legendre, mayor of Iville, a town of 500 people, told Macron.
‘We feel isolated and yet we’re only 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Paris,’ added Jean-Noel Montier, mayor of Mesnil-en-Ouche, a collection of several remote villages.
‘No forbidden questions’
Tuesday’s meeting sounded the start of two months of consultations across France on four main themes to have emerged from the ‘yellow vest’ protests: taxation; France’s transition to a low-carbon economy; democracy and citizenship, and the functioning of the state and public services.
In an open letter to the French released on Sunday setting out 35 questions, Macron said he hoped ‘as many as possible’ would participate in the town-hall-style discussions.
‘We won’t agree on everything, that’s normal, that’s democracy. But at least we’ll show we are a people who are not afraid to talk, exchange and debate.’
While the mayors gathered in Grand Bourgtheroulde appeared glad to be given a hearing, many ‘yellow vests’ have reacted sceptically to Macron’s initiative, seeing it as a ploy to undercut their movement.
They point to Macron’s refusal to discuss bringing back the ISF fortune tax as proof that he is not prepared to significantly change his policies.
On Tuesday, police used tear gas to disperse a group of around 100 protesters who gathered near the meeting venue in Normandy.
Analysts and many in Macron’s own party fear the debate could spur a cascade of nebulous demands or calls for the repeal of longstanding laws, such as those that abolished the death penalty or allowed gay marriage.
An Elabe poll Tuesday showed the French feeling conflicted about the debates, with 40 percent saying they intended to participate but 66 percent saying they did not think it would end the protests.Macron has announced other measures to try to end the social unrest, including scrapping fuel tax hikes and unveiling a 10-billion-euro ($11.5-billion) package of wage increases and tax relief for low earners.
An estimated 84,000 people took part in last Saturday’s protests.