Why Emmanuel Macron’s “Great National Debate” won’t stop the Gilets Jaunes

After launching a debate to quell months of protest, France’s millionaire president invited other millionaires to a summit at Versailles.

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Yesterday, in the midst of a social crisis in France and shortly after launching a “great national debate” to engage with the gilets jaunes, Emmanuel Macron welcomed 120 millionaires to the Palace of Versailles.

At the “Choose France” summit, CEOs from Microsoft, JPMorgan, Ikea, Uber, Alibaba Group, Coca-Cola, Bosch and ArcelorMittal gathered to hear the French president pitch his country as an attractive investment opportunity. Macron’s grand gesture was aimed at reassuring global companies that the yellow vest protests have not killed off the French economy.

As the president of the French employers union told Le Monde, “When you’re in the US, and you see the yellow vests attacking world-famous monuments, it looks like civil war”.

In other words, to ensure business leaders do not perceive France as a failing state, its millionaire president invited other millionaires to the gilded château de Versailles, the former home of King Louis XVI, whose beheading occurred on the same day 226 years prior to Macron’s gathering.

The summit certainly helped the country maintain its reputation abroad, and the image that Macron has cultivated at home, as “president of the rich”. But the French president’s communication talents appear limited to people of his own class. Macron has followed the example of pre-revolutionary French leaders, providing books in city halls where citizens may register their grievances. Yet for now, these grievances have only led to talks between elected parties.

The president has appeared on television attentively listening to town mayors and answering their concerns point by point. The press have lauded him for addressing them for hours at a time (even though that is, quite literally, his job).

Macron’s big road trip looks much like his presidential campaign, during which the ‘En marche!’ team built a manifesto based on consultations with French citizens that took place in thousands of local workshops. But this time, Macron drew red lines before he took to the road, announcing he would not renege on particular demands, nor backtrack on big reforms.

Yet can this still be called a “great national debate” if dialogue excludes the masses and discussion is limited to certain topics? “The president is merely presenting his policies,” French news site Médiapart concluded.

The gilet jaunes movement is the cause for this grand gesture, but so far there have been few debates between members of the movement and Macron’s government. In Normandy on 15 January, the first stop on Macron’s tour, roads were blocked and businesses closed in Grand-Bourgtheroulde, where the president met with 600 mayors.

On 18 January in Souillac, southwest France, Macron also spoke with 600 mayors but very few locals. He chatted briefly with teachers and parents in front of a school. Not a single gilet jaune crossed his path. The authorities had banned all gilets jaunes meetings in town; the city centre was closed down, the market cancelled. When a handful of protesters deployed a large banner reading “Macron, stop your bollocking, we won’t be tricked by your great debate”, they were rapidly removed by the police.

Macron’s LREM party, which has organised these local debates, also seems to be excluding gilets jaunes from dialogue with the President. People wearing yellow vests recently resorted to forcing open the doors at a meeting in Besançon, eastern France.

As one protestor put it, “We’re told about a great citizen debate, and there are people […] in social misery, who come to listen to the LREM people, and they’re banned from coming in. Is that democracy?”

With attendance at weekly gilet jaunes marches up since December, Macron’s national debate risks falling on deaf ears. How can the president heal palpable discontent without engaging with the very people he claims to represent?

Against this backdrop, welcoming CEOs and wealthy entrepreneurs in the golden décor of the Salle des Batailles in Versailles appeared rather out of touch. While government spokespeople insisted the event was aimed at harnessing investment and creating jobs in France, it seemed more like bad PR than clear-sighted strategy.

On the same day as Macron’s gathering, Oxfam published a report on global inequality that revealed the richest 1 per cent own more than half of the world’s wealth. Much to Macron’s chagrin, reuniting the bosses of the richest companies in a gilt royal palace may have been a poorly timed move.

Wealth inequality is central to France’s current unrest. Yet Macron’s response – favouring trickle-down economics in the belief that the poor will benefit – continues to be inadequate. While the gilets jaunes are a disparate movement, they have united around calls for fiscal equality and social justice, issues that have retained high support from the French public despite months of protests.

Yet Macron has continually refused to backtrack on his 2017 decision to scrap the wealth tax. Economic inequality had already tarnished the president’s “great debate” before it started. The situation was exacerbated by the head of the national public debate commission’s €14,666 monthly salary – news that ultimately led her to resignation.

On top of this, Macron’s clumsy soundbites continue to irk the public. He has said that some unemployed people are doing well while others are “fucking up”, and called to make those in difficult situations “more responsible”. He doesn’t refrain from lecturing the unemployed, and last September told a jobless gardener to “cross the street to find a job”.

The president is deaf to the French people’s demands, and prone to hypocritical statements about meritocracy. Instead of heeding the social and economic conditions that led to spontaneous revolts, Macron has turned instead to talks with ruling parties. The country’s situation is worryingly similar to that which stoked the French revolution. More than summits with CEOs, Macron needs to brush up on his history.  

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.