Macron's Great Debaters fed up with tax
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French President Emmanuel Macron launched his two-month-long "Great National Debate" in January after weeks of Yellow Vest protesters denouncing him for knowing nothing of the lives of people outside his palace. Halfway into the campaign of town hall style talks, has the perception changed?
Macron appeared shaken by the accusation that he was completely out of touch with the people. In January, he declared in an open letter that he hoped “to transform anger into solutions”, and then launched the "Grand Débat National", proposing thousands of meetings in towns, villages and cities around the country.
Prominent Yellow Vest figures dismissed the move, insisting that it was a sham and that Macron would carry on with business as usual once it was all over.
A key complaint was that the government chose the questions to be addressed, with guideline questionnaires covering only 4 general themes around ecology, democracy, tax and public spending.
Macron later declared that no subject was off-limits and at many town debates time has been allotted for “other issues”.
What do the debates look like?
I went to the town of town of Andrésy, about 30 kilometres west of Paris, for its first debate.
It’s a small place with a population of about 1,200. About 60 people turn up.
Apart from a man who came to the town years ago as part of a programme to resettle Tibetan refugees, they all fit a similar profile: white and over 45 – fairly representative of the town, according to the mayor.
People sit down at one of seven tables, each dedicated to one of the 4 themes.
I join the table labelled “other themes”, where the mayor also sits down. He is from the right wing Les Républicains party. He thinks president Macron’s debates are a good idea and is acting as a neutral facilitator.
The man who had originally come from Tibet laments that it’s so difficult to access accommodation with a fixed-term rather than an open job contract. “My Chinese friends tell me in China no one cares what contract you have, they will let you rent property but if then if you don’t pay you have to get out.”
A lady in her late thirties thinks banks ask for too much proof of financial security before authorising loans.
There is an awkward silence as people run out of things to say and then the group write down their view that the government should consider “measures” which might limit property speculation and reduce the price of property.
Over at the 'Organisation of the State and Public Services' table they are talking about snow and how long it took to clear the roads after a recent heavy bout.
A lady in her 60s remarks that the snow used to be cleared much more quickly and that the local authorities “had got rid of some of the necessary [snow-clearing] equipment” and that "they shouldn’t have".
One man suggests that more people buy snow tyres. He says that not everyone has a car, heavy snowfalls are not frequent and it's not worth spending a lot of public money on snow clearance.
At the 'Democracy and Citizenship' table a woman proposes that MPs be selected at random from ordinary citizens. Another agrees, suggesting it would be a good thing if more ordinary people who worked in business, the health sector or education, became MPs. A system under which they could return to their jobs after a stint in parliament would be a good idea, she offers.
Taxes: the burning issue
The Yellow Vest protests erupted amid fury over increases in fuel tax. The movement was strongest in rural or small town areas with little public transport where people rely on their cars.
Residents of a suburban town like Andrésy would seem to need their cars but when I sit down at the table dedicated to 'The Transition Towards a Greener Environment', one environmentally-conscious woman says with a smile “the problem with our table is that we all agree”.
They note down that the government should make repair workshops compulsory in each town, and outlaw the sale of products which can’t be repaired.
The table devoted to 'Tax' is by far the liveliest.
Everyone agrees that the government cannot just keep raising taxes. "We need to re-think how the money is spent," says one man.
“Where does all the money go?” says someone else.
One participant says students should pay more for higher education as they do in other countries – that if they were forced to take out bank loans they would take their education more seriously. There is little enthusiasm for his idea.
They all agree that they would like their taxes to be spent on research and development.
But NOT on training.
Several people assert disapprovingly that the budget for training is “huge” already. One woman describes its use as “frighteningly wasteful”.
They are unanimous in what they want and they write down their wishes.
They want fewer layers of government. Many local and regional councils could be stripped away they say. But local mayors and the teams are important.
They want less waste.
They want projects implemented more quickly, lamenting that too much time elapses between ideas and their implementation.
The whole evening lasted two hours and when it was over, those I spoke to were pleased.
They welcomed the chance to talk to one another and seemed comfortable sharing their ideas. The questionnaires and other accounts of the meeting, as well as online contributions, will now be sent "up to the government" to be analysed under the supervision of independent guarantors.
In April, the results of the great consultation with its giant suggestions box will be made public.
And then Macron must react.
He knows he will need to show that he has listened and he will need to come up with some concrete response to demonstrate that the exercise was not, as some maintain, a massive public relations exercise.