France kicks off national debate in attempt to quell Yellow Vests’ anger

Mr Macron is expected to offer his own conclusions from the three-month debate in mid-March

A protestor holds a poster reading "Emmanuel, we made an effort, we crossed the street to tell you, go away" before French President Emmanuel Macron's visit in Grand Bourgtheroulde, Normandy, Tuesday, Jan.15, 2019. Macron is formally launching a "grand debate" to try to appease the yellow vest movement following weeks of anti-government protests. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
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French President Emmanuel Macron began his national debate yesterday, in a bid to end the protests by the Yellow Vests throughout France.

Grand-Bourgtheroulde, a small town in Normandy in northern France, was the first to host the president as he began the talks yesterday.

Mr Macron was scheduled to meet about 600 mayors and local officials, accompanied by Environment Minister Emmanuelle Wargon, because green policies were expected to be at the forefront of debates.

Grand-Bourgtheroulde visitors and residents were offered the chance to leave their suggestions for Mr Macron in a notebook yesterday.

These would be collected by the president at the end of the debate’s first day.

The national debate was aimed at “turning anger into solutions”, just days after Yellow Vest protesters clashed with police across the country for a ninth consecutive weekend.

Mr Macron published an open letter to encourage debate on four central themes during the coming weeks.

These were taxation, the organisation of public spending savings, bureaucratic procedures, and citizenship and democracy.

“For me, there is no banned issue. We won’t agree on everything, which is normal in a democracy,” Mr Macron said in the letter.

“But at least we’ll show we’re a people that is not afraid of talking, exchanging, debating. This is how I intend to turn anger into solutions.

But he stopped short of saying he would consider rolling back his pro-business reforms.

“We will not undo the measures we have introduced to put this right, encourage investment and ensure that work pays more,” Mr Macron said.

He has become known as the “president of the rich” and is accused of introducing a new green tax that will be paid by those who can least afford it.

The French leader, who challenged US president and long-time climate change denier Donald Trump by turning his campaign motto into “Make Our Planet Great Again”, faced a backlash against his environmental policies.

Mr Macron is expected to offer his own conclusions from the three-month debate in mid-March.

He did not suggest holding a referendum on his policies, an option reportedly suggested by some in his government.

On Friday, Mr Macron announced the cancellation of his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos this month.

His announcement followed that of Mr Trump, who also cancelled his trip to Switzerland because his government remains in lockdown over funding for the construction of a border wall.

But Mr Macron is still expected to host a second annual business meeting of global chief executives in Versailles on January 21.

In recent days, the French central bank cut the country’s growth forecast for the final quarter to 0.2 per cent in December, down from an earlier estimate of 0.4 per cent.

The national debate initiative has so far lifted Mr Macron’s popularity ranking, which hit a record low after protests began in November.

Thanks to the measures taken to soothe the Yellow Vests' anger, his rating jumped five percentage points this month, according to a poll by Ifop for Paris Match.

The president and prime minister now have approval ratings of 28 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively, according to Ifop.

It also found that support for Mr Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was down to 20 per cent in December, with 45 per cent of voters “very dissatisfied” with Mr Macron’s leadership.

A few Yellow Vest protesters gathered in Grand-Bourgtheroulde to oppose Mr Macron’s initiative, which they see as a poor attempt at fixing things.

Whether the anti-government demonstrators will accept a place at the negotiating table as opposed to taking to the streets for yet another weekend of protest remains to be seen.