In December, Emmanuel Macron’s French government responded to weeks of gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests by initiating a Grand Débat National (Great National Debate) in an attempt to quell the protests. The debate is meant to give all French citizens the opportunity to participate in dialogue about the national crisis that has overtaken French politics. The debate, both government-initiated and government-run, has been organized into four categories: taxation, ecology, democracy and citizenship, and government/public services.
In a letter address to the French public, Macron says that no questions are forbidden. He also says, however, that the government will not overturn certain policies that are already settled such as his wealth tax reform. The debate was announced mid-December but began January 15 and will continue until March 15. Key questions surrounding the announcement are what actual improvements the debate will be able to facilitate and whether or not it is up to the task of satiating the anti-government protests happening for 14 weeks now around the country.
In the first few weeks since its launching, the Great National Debate has received some praise and, at times, caused some optimism. In forums and town halls across the country, dialogue with mayors and public leaders of suburban cities has allowed many overlooked issues to be raised. Suburbs, which in France tend to be populated by immigrants and marginalized members of society, have been experiencing police brutality, a lack of public services, dysfunctional public transportation, abandoned social service projects and obstacles to employment for those with non-French sounding names. Macron has been able to participate in public forums to listen and take note of such complaints. One activist community leader expresses that Macron is “very open and interested…[he] answers our questions and is open to criticism and suggestions” (NPR). At one such meeting, Macron admitted, “I realize there is a rupture in the values of the French Republic when it comes to the suburbs, and the guarantee of equality doesn’t always extend to these neighborhoods” (NPR).
Despite its ability to raise in detail the problems that the gilets jaunes brought to light, the Great National Debate is also being criticized as being a ploy by the government to buy time. These criticisms point to the lack of detailed information about how suggestions and complaints will be combined and used for tangible change, according to Natcha Butler of Al Jazeera. Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire says the debate will allow citizens to demonstrate “what public spending are you prepared to cut down so that we can reduce your taxes?”
The gilets jaunes movement began in November as a protest against a controversial fuel tax Macron’s government had passed. Since, it has grown to a general anti-Macron, anti-government (some have even described it as anti-Republic) recurring demonstration every Saturday. The Centre National du Débat Public (National Center for Public Debate, CNDP) is a non-governmental organization that organizes and encourages public debates on matters of interest to the state. On the topic of the Great National Debate, the CNDP has criticized it for being government-run and organized, allowing it to serve the needs of elected officials rather than raise topics of actual change. They suggest a national debate that is independent of presidential power, where the voice of the people is not directed by the interests of the government (Le Monde).
Because of the increasing violence of the protests – an escalation that is inflaming concerns of police brutality – the Great National Debate is at least a welcome starting point to work towards a peaceful and democratic solution to the anti-government protests. Gilets jaunes protesters come from all sides of the political spectrum and are vastly leaderless and coordinated by social media, making it hard for Macron to find a way to satisfy their demands and so bring an end to the protests. As progressive salary packages and an overturn of the fuel tax didn’t end the protests, the government has turned to the Great National Debate, ideally to hear what is plaguing the country and what can be done to satisfy these problems. Despite the need to reform the way the debate is approached and run, it has so far taken place peacefully – and is at least an attempt by the government to quell the increasingly violent protests.