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France weighs risk of tying Yellow Vest referendum to EU elections

French President Emmanuel Macron at a town hall meeting as part of the "great national debate" launched in response to Yellow Vest protests, 1 February 2019.
French President Emmanuel Macron at a town hall meeting as part of the "great national debate" launched in response to Yellow Vest protests, 1 February 2019. Michel Euler/REUTERS

France’s political establishment has shared diverse views on the possibility of holding a referendum on issues driving the Yellow Vest protests on the same day as European elections on 26 May.


Anne Jadot, associate professor of political science at the University of Lorraine in Nancy

Calls for more direct democracy have been part of the Yellow Vest protests since they began in November.

Macron has made several attempts to diffuse the anger driving the protests, first announcing measures to boost spending power in December and then launching two months of town hall debates on the nation’s priorities in January.

The idea of holding a referendum at the end of this “great national debate” has been circulating for several weeks, and Macron said himself on Thursday that a referendum was “one of the things on the table”.

French newspaper Journal du Dimanche advanced the debate on Sunday, citing sources close to the presidency to report that Macron was considering such a referendum the same day as European elections, 26 May 2019.

On Monday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe refused to confirm or to deny that such plans were underway.

“A great debate is underway,” he said. “The question of knowing under what conditions, with what proposals we will come out of the debate is not yet on the agenda.”

The question of the issues

The possibility of a referendum made for much comment among allies and rivals to the government, and one set of comments concerned the content of any potential referendum.

The Journal du Dimanche suggested voters may be asked whether they want to reduce the number of lawmakers in France’s two houses of parliament – a campaign pledge by Macron.

It could also ask whether voters favoured imposing term limits to prevent career politicians from staying in power and whether blank ballots should be recognised.

Laurent Wauqiez, leader of right-wing opposition party Les Républicains, said Macron was taking a risk if the referendum was only on reforming institutions, which he said were “very far removed from the cencerns and priorities of the French people".

“Of course it’s an important issue, but if it’s the only issue that we propose to the people at the end, then the president is taking a great risk,” he said.

While discontent with the political class has characterised the Yellow Vest protesters from the start, much more of the anger has been related to more concrete issues of taxes and the cost of living.

“They pay a lot more attention to issues like wealth tax and purchasing power,” says Anne Jadot, an associate professor of political science at the University of Lorraine in Nancy.

“I’m not sure institutional arrangements would be that much of an incentive for them to go and participate.”

The question of the European elections

The notion of timing any such referendum with the European elections has roused sceptical reaction – even from within the government.

“European issue are important enough to be treated on their own,” said Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “The referendum is another thing, it is on national issues.”

European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau agreed on the need to separate issues, saying “I hope we talk about Europe on 26 May, because there is a lot at stake that needs to be discussed”.

Opposition figures were, unsurprisingly, much more vehement in their reactions.

“The government is trying to build a ruse,” said Manon Aubry of left-wing movement France Unbowed.

“Even before launching the great debate, [Macron] had already decided to propose a referendum on the same day as the European elections to distract from European issues,” argued Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally (formerly National Front).

Bitterness of the last referendum

In France, only about 40 percent of registered voters participate in European elections, and those who do are generally motivated by a sense of civic duty, attachment to a particular political party or out of protest with the EU.

While coupling a referendum with the vote could boost turnout, the anti-establishment feeling of the Yellow Vest protests along with the populist fervour stretching across the EU could also make for a potentially explosive campaign.

“It would be tricky for [Macron],” Jadot says. “It would cast a shadow over the real European issues [and] most of the campaign could turn into a matter of loving or hating Emmanuel Macron.”

The idea of a referendum and of European issues both have a way of stirring bitter memories of France’s last referendum in 2005, when a majority of voters rejected ratification of an EU constitution.

The vote was a setback for then-president Jacques Chirac, but the houses of parliament proceeded to ratify an amended treaty a few months later.

“It is maybe one of the long-term origins of the current disaffection with the representative system and how it works,” says Jadot, recalling that 70 percent of voters participated in 2005.

“It has been perceived as a blow to the democratic expression of the people, as treason or not following what the citizens said,” she says. “So it’s somehow a seed of disenfranchisement or unhappiness with elected officials, with the perception that they do not care what people think.”

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