PARIS - After wrapping up thousands of town hall meetings, France starts a new chapter of its "great debate," aimed to address longstanding public grievances and offer solutions to the yellow vest protest movement.
But the broader crisis lingers, seen with upsurge of violence in Paris Saturday, where about 10,000 yellow vests marked their 18th straight week of protests.
Demonstrators smashed and looted businesses on the iconic Champs Elysees and hurled cobble stones at police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. Others participated in a peaceful climate march that brought together tens of thousand of people—underscoring the diffuse, unorganized complexity of the leaderless protest movement.
Eight weeks of citizen debates, launched in January by an embattled President Emmanuel Macron, have received mixed reviews. Some consider them a groundbreaking experiment in participative democracy. Others dismiss them as a public relations stunt.
The bigger question is whether and how Macron’s centrist government plans to transform the public feedback into tangible policy change that can address pent-up resentments and find an exit to the unrest.
“The problems start now” said analyst Jean Petaux of Sciences-Po Bordeaux University. “To totally finish with the yellow vests, the government has to address at least part of their demands, which are very disparate. And give the sense it is offering credible solutions.”
For Macron, the immediate takeaways have been largely positive. Up to half-a-million French participated in 10,000 town-hall-style meetings nationwide that tackled pre-set topics, ranging from taxes and pubic services, to democracy and the environment. Organizers also received more than 1.4 million online comments outlining other issues of public concern, including jobs and immigration.
“People are learning that politics and how to change a system is a very difficult process,” said Bernard Reber, an expert on participative citizenship at the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research, citing one early achievement.
A mixed review
The debates have also given the president and his government some breathing room — time that will last through the current "phase two," which ends in April. Citizens are being randomly selected to participate in regional meetings aimed to prioritize the myriad demands.
Surveys show the majority of French have broadly given the national debates a thumbs up. More than eight in 10 respondents said the meetings gave citizens an opportunity to express themselves, while smaller majorities said they addressed their personal problems and those aired by the yellow vests, according to a Harris Interactive-Agence Epoka poll published this week, echoing others.
But many appear skeptical that all the talking will amount to much. Another survey found roughly two-thirds doubt the government will ultimately take the public feedback into account.
France’s leading Le Monde newspaper, however, gave the effort a careful, initial thumbs up. Critics who dismissed the debates as a diversion “were misguided,” it wrote in an editorial, while the yellow vests “were eclipsed and marginalize by this exercise in democracy.”
“Macron has not yet won,” it added, “he needs to show he hasn’t just listened but heard the country.”
Government members insist that will happen.
“The idea we have to do things differently is obvious,” Territorial Collectives Minister Sebastien Lecornu, who helped to organizing the debates, told the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche. “We may beef up certain themes, accelerate or correct others.”
But Prime Minister Edouard Philippe offered a more cautionary note, those expecting a flurry of government measures emerging from the debates were misguided.
The months of yellow vest protests have slowed Macron’s reformist agenda. The protest movement, named after the fluorescent jackets French keep in their cars, has morphed well beyond its initial opposition to a planned fuel tax hike, to embrace a hodgepodge of grievances of a largely rural and working class France left behind.
The French president took an initial step back by repealing the fuel tax increase. Then in December, he went further, announcing billions of dollars of aid for the most vulnerable and laying out plans the debates. Yellow vests dismissed the announcements as insufficient, the most extreme calling for Macron’s resignation.
“Emmanuel Macron now has to show that his statements — that there is a before and and after the yellow vests — are translated into acts,” says analyst Petaux. “Otherwise, it’s just talk.”
The next step?
So far, there are at least stylistic changes. Often dismissed as arrogant and aloof, Macron has rolled up his sleeves — literally — and participated in roughly a dozen public debates, in a style reminiscent of his presidential campaign.
Political opponents grumble the French leader has hogged media coverage ahead of May European Parliament elections. And indeed, polls show Macron’s approval rating jumped eight points by early March, to reach 28 percent, and his Republic on the March party inching up to overtake the far-right opposition National Rally.
Still, some observers note the debates ultimately involved only a small slice of the population — including many elderly, with time on their hands. “The great majority of French stayed home,” said analyst Petaux. “It’s not that they were sidelined. It’s that they don’t care. They have other things to do.”
But analyst Reber, who attended roughly 30 of the town hall meetings, believes the debates should not be underestimated. “They’ve been unprecedented in every sense,” he said.
A few months ago, he said, many would have dismissed the idea that French would show up and hash out often deeply divisive issues. “But that’s not been the case,” Reber added. “People mobilized — and stayed for a long time. I don’t know many countries in the world that allow citizens to participate in hours-long debates.”
Macron is expected to announce the after-debate roadmap next month. So far, the French president has given little indication of his long-term exit strategy. Some believe he doesn’t yet have one.
“I’m not sure the government has a clear idea of what it’s going to do with this mass of information” Reber said. “But it has all kinds of options.
A referendum may be the most obvious path, many analysts say. But it carries risks — not only in terms timing, notably whether to schedule such a vote during May European Parliament elections — but also the chance French may vote against it.
The next steps for the yellow vests are also unclear. A number of analysts believe the movement will slowly die out.
Some diehards will likely continue and harden the protests, Petaux believes, while another group will be absorbed into existing politics parties — mostly on the far right and far left.
A third “will relive the nostalgia of the Republic of roundabouts,” he said, remembering the solidarity and friendships struck during the protests.