In 1789, Louis XVI sum­moned France’s aris­toc­racy and cit­i­zens to dis­cuss pop­u­lar dis­con­tent. Two cen­turies on, Em­manuel Macron is try­ing the same move.

■ Nine week­ends of vi­o­lent protest force pres­i­dent to con­sult the peo­ple via three-month ‘grand de­bat’

Irish Examiner - - News - Em­i­lie Del­warde

In 1789, Louis XVI sum­moned France’s aris­toc­racy, clergy, and cit­i­zens to dis­cuss ways to plug the crown’s dis­mal fi­nances and quell pop­u­lar dis­con­tent over a scle­rotic feu­dal so­ci­ety.

It marked the start of the French Rev­o­lu­tion. Within months, he was pow­er­less. Four years later, he was be­headed by guil­lo­tine.

Two cen­turies on, France’s pres­i­dent, Em­manuel Macron, of­ten crit­i­cised for a monar­chi­cal man­ner, is also call­ing a na­tional de­bate to mol­lify ‘yel­low vest’ pro­test­ers, whose nine-week upris­ing has set Paris ablaze and shaken his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

He will launch the three­month ‘grand de­bat’ on Jan­uary 15. As dur­ing the rule of the ill-fated Louis XVI, the French are al­ready writ­ing com­plaints in ‘griev­ance books’ opened by the may­ors of 5,000 com­munes.

The de­bate will fo­cus on four themes — taxes, green en­ergy, in­sti­tu­tional re­form, and cit­i­zen­ship. Dis­cus­sions will be held on the in­ter­net and in town halls. But of­fi­cials have said Macron’s re­forms to lib­er­alise the econ­omy will be off lim­its.

“The de­bates are not an op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple to offload all their frus­tra­tions, nor are we ques­tion­ing what we’ve done in the past 18 months,” gov­ern­ment spokesman, Ben­jamin Griveaux, told BFM TV. “We’re not re­play­ing the elec­tion.”

By lim­it­ing the terms, Macron risks mak­ing the same mis­take that doomed the monar­chy, his­to­rian Stephane Sirot, of Univer­sity of Cergy-Pon­toise, told Le Parisien news­pa­per.

“Em­manuel Macron is like Louis XVI, who ... re­ceives the griev­ance books, but doesn’t un­der­stand any­thing from them.”

In Flagy, 100 kilo­me­tres south of Paris, the vil­lage mayor has been re­ceiv­ing writ­ten griev­ances from lo­cal ‘yel­low vests’ like Agosthino Bareto. The 65-year-old garage owner is con­vinced the gov­ern­ment will frame the de­bate to suit it­self.

“All that we’ve been say­ing is like dust thrown into the wind,” Bareto said. “We’re not be­ing lis­tened to.”

Flagy’s mayor, Jac­ques Drouhin, is sym­pa­thetic. He says he will refuse to hold a town hall de­bate as long as Macron plans to press on with re­forms re­gard­less.

“That’s not what our cit­i­zens are ask­ing for,” Drouhin said. “That’s enough. It’s now down to our lead­ers to lis­ten to what’s been said in the griev­ance books.”

Weak par­tic­i­pa­tion would un­der­mine the ex­er­cise. This week, an Elabe opin­ion poll showed that only 40% of cit­i­zens in­tended to take part in the de­bate.

France is brac­ing for more street protests and pos­si­ble ri­ots, when win­ter sales kick off to­day. Yet even as the de­mon­stra­tions rum­ble on, it re­mains un­clear whether the ‘yel­low vests’ will emerge as a po­lit­i­cal force or fiz­zle away, un­done by their own in­ter­nal dif­fer­ences.

The leader of Italy’s anti­estab­lish­ment, 5-Star Move­ment, Luigi di Maio, this week pub­licly backed the French pro­test­ers, of­fer­ing his party’s in­ter­net plat­form for di­rect democ­racy — known as ‘Rousseau’ (af­terJean-Jac­ques, a lead­ing thinker of the French En­light­en­ment) — to help the ‘yel­low vests’ de­fine a pro­gramme.

While lead­er­less, the ‘yel­low vests’ mir­ror move­ments like Spain’s In­dig­na­dos and Italy’s 5-Star, which have sought to upend Europe’s tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

“I am more wor­ried now about the ‘yel­low vest’ protests in France (than Italy),” Karen Ward, chief mar­ket strate­gist for EMEA, at JP Mor­gan As­set Man­age­ment, told a me­dia brief­ing.

The ‘yel­low vests’ take their name from the high­vis­i­bil­ity jack­ets they wear at road bar­ri­cades and on the street.

Their rage stems from a squeeze on house­hold in­comes and a be­lief that Macron, a for­mer in­vest­ment banker re­garded as close to big busi­ness, is in­dif­fer­ent to their hard­ships.

Macron will take heart from a sharp fall in pub­lic sup­port for the pro­test­ers over the past month. He prom­ises to use the de­bates to chan­nel their anger and shape new pol­icy via a more par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy.

The ‘yel­low vests’ are de­mand­ing the right to call ref­er­en­dums through mass pe­ti­tions. Se­nior cab­i­net min­is­ters have not re­jected the idea — the prime min­is­ter, Edouard Philippe, called cit­i­zen-ini­ti­ated ref­er­en­dums a “use­ful tool in a democ­racy” — but said their use should be lim­ited.

More likely is an idea touted within the rul­ing party and gov­ern­ment for the na­tional de­bate to be fol­lowed by a ref­er­en­dum with sev­eral ques­tions, rather than a thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote.

“The gov­ern­ment is aware of the risks of mak­ing any vote a vote about Macron and not the is­sues,” said An­to­nio Bar­roso, deputy di­rec­tor of re­search at riskad­vi­sory firm Te­neo. “So you solve that by ask­ing mul­ti­ple ques­tions.”

Pic­ture: Gian Ehren­zeller/AP

Peo­ple clear snow from in­side the Ho­tel Saen­tis in Sch­wae­galp, Switzer­land, after an avalanche. Po­lice said three peo­ple were slightly hurt when the avalanche hit the ho­tel at Sch­wae­galp.

Em­manuel Macron: Re­forms to lib­er­alise econ­omy off lim­its.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.