Emmanuel Macron ’s inauguration of two months of nationwide debate was intended to soothe the anti-government “gilets jaunes” protests that have undermined his presidency. But even before he arrived at the first such gathering in the north of France on Tuesday, the president raised hackles by saying some poor people were “messing about”.
“For people in a difficult situation, we will try to make them take more responsibility,” the president told local officials during a stop in the small town of Gasny. “Because some are doing the right thing, and some are just messing about.”
The comments were quickly picked up on social media and French television news channels. By the time he arrived in Grand Bourgtheroulde, a Norman town of about 4,000, a familiar scene had formed outside the sports hall where 600 rural mayors were waiting for the president: about 100 angry yellow vest protesters and riot police in gear.
“It’s a masquerade,” Marie-Laure Dehors, a 29-year-old gilet jaune, said. “Read the first part of the letter he sent to the French people (about the debate). He already said he wouldn’t change direction.”
Mr Macron’s initiative is designed to show an increasingly restive French population that the president heard their criticisms of his haughty style of governing. At stake after nine consecutive weekends of at times violent demonstrations is the French president’s ability to pass contentious pensions and labour reforms.
“We have to reject demagoguery because angry outbursts have never been a solution, but we need to build the ways and means to work out solutions for the country,” he told the elected officials in Grand Bourgtheroulde’s sports hall.
The marathon debate between the mayors and Mr Macron was fractious at points, with one mayor saying that “France is sick” and another that France was “going to the wall due to extremism and intolerance”.
But as the president responded to the questions — on topics from speed limits to housing, from unemployment to mobility, pensions to purchasing power, and from Brexit to energy policy — the mood lightened and by the sixth hour Mr Macron was in shirt sleeves and trading jokes.
Near the very end he asked for “some final questions” to applause and some groans. He finished to much stronger applause than he had greeted him, with the president saying he wanted to use the debate to put together a new democratic framework.
Gilets jaunes demonstrations which began in November as motorists’ protests against rising fuel taxes and diesel prices, have widened into an anti-Macron and anti-establishment movement that has dented economic growth and consumer confidence. Some marches have turned violent, with “casseurs” or wreckers attacking and looting shops and government buildings and fighting with police.
In a later to the French people released at the weekend. Mr Macron made it clear that he saw the debate which is being conducted through public meetings, complaints books in town halls and over the internet — as an opportunity to revive support for his reforms.
He wrote he shared the desire of the protesters who have marched in cities across France for lower taxes, and wanted their suggestions for where to cut public spending or make it more efficient to finance such tax cuts.
“Macron needs the mayors. His invitation today is for him to rebuild the links with local people,” Jacques Laurent, mayor of Le Tréport on the Normandy coast, said as he waited for the president to arrive.
Mr Macron said on Tuesday that nothing was “taboo” in the public debate. However, he ruled out acceding to the demands of many gilets jaunes to reintroduce the wealth tax he scrapped to promote investment in France.
The debate is to be focused on four themes: tax and spending; the reform of state institutions; the environment; and the future of democracy and the role of citizens. One of the 35 questions Mr Macron suggested in his letter — asking whether people wanted annual immigration targets — caused anguish among some of his liberal supporters but may have resonated with supporters of the increasingly popular extreme-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) party of Marine Le Pen.
“It’s an opportunity,” Marion Roth, who heads Décider Ensemble (Decide Together), a think-tank promoting civic participation, said of the debate. “But at the same time, the critics will stay opposed and won’t participate, and others will participate without being sure that things will be followed up.”
“As for solving the crisis, I’m not sure. Among the gilets jaunes there are plenty who say the debate is fixed and it’s all decided by the government.”