Emmanuel Macron’s response to his “great national debate” shows he’s learned nothing

By embracing public spending cuts and refusing to reintroduce the wealth tax, the French president has denied the possibility of genuine reform. 

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When the French government today unveiled the results of the three-month long “great national debate” organised by Emmanuel Macron to appease the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement, it proudly cited an abundance of feedback. 

Between 22 January and 2 March, 1.5 million French people made more than 1.9 million contributions, either online, at local meetings, or in grievance books available at town halls across France. The national debate, the most ambitious of its kind for decades (at a cost of €12m), was divided into four main themes: living standards, taxes, democracy and the environment.

What stood out from this nationwide dialogue, the French government said, was popular support for lower taxes, especially the regressive VAT; greater social justice, for example the reintroduction of the wealth tax that Macron abolished in 2017, and an awareness of the environmental crisis. It remains unclear which area of public spending should be cut to reduce taxes, prime minister Edouard Philippe added, although three-quarters of respondents said government waste was a priority. The administration’s respond to the electorate’s “fiscal despair” (“ras-le-bol fiscal” in French) is clear: since the French want lower taxes, it’s time to cut public spending.

Philippe couldn’t resist an indirect dig at the yellow vests, and all those who dare demand a better quality of life and higher public spending. “The French,” he said, “have understood with more maturity than some political movements, that we can’t reduce taxes if we don’t cut public spending.” The words “yellow vests”, however, weren’t mentioned once.

It is convenient that a debate organised by the French government should have concluded that the French government’s policies represent the best way forward. The president recently vowed that “concrete measures” would be taken in response, only to disappoint hopes by insisting that the results would not lead the government to change course (spoiler: the wealth tax won’t come back). Holding the country’s most ambitious public dialogue in decades, while repeating that nothing of substance will change is certainly an interesting technique, but it appears not to have fooled the French.

Around 57 per cent of voters did not trust the government to respect transparency when publishing the results of the great debate, a YouGov poll found last week. And who could blame them, when the head of the country’s public debate unit, Chantal Jouanno, who was supposed to pilot the debate project, quit in January,  denouncing it as a “PR operation” and a “rigged” debate, since some topics, such as the wealth tax, had been declared off-limits. The same poll noted that 61 per cent of the population did not believe that the results would influence government policy.

Owing to the yellow vests’ understandable distrust of the president, the debate excluded significant parts of the French population, including the least well-off and the disenfranchised. Data found that 65 per cent of the participants had a university degree.

Doubts have also been cast on the content of the debate itself. Do the French really want less public spending? The government today announced that 75 per cent of them do — but doubts have been raised over its neutrality. A question on public spending in the debate’s online poll was formulated as follows: “To reduce the public deficit of the country, which spends more than it earns, do you think we need to: a) cut public spending, b) raise taxes, c) do both, d) I don’t know.” Such a question was clearly crafted to lead respondents to the solution of spending cuts.

After Macron invited more than 60 academics and philosophers to debate for eight hours at the Élysée Palace, many concluded they had been exploited for the president’s gain. One attendee, Paris-Dauphine professor Dominique Méda, said she felt they had been “taken hostage” by a president who has “absolutely not realised the social and environmental urgency”. In an op-ed for left-wing newspaper Libération, she wrote: “The door was systematically closed on every opportunity to debate about economic and social topics. His first answers made clear that there would be no rise in public spending, no increase in taxes on the highest earners, no great investment plan for an ecological transition.”

Was Macron’s great debate just for show? Its conclusions are unlikely to restore the truth eroded before it began. During the announcement of the results in Paris’s Grand Palais, a man in the audience shouted: “Mr Macron must be sued for high treason!” He was escorted out of the room by security.

The president might have forgotten that when the French monarchy called for a nationwide consultation in 1789, distrust in the ruling class led the people to consult among themselves and eventually create the National Assembly. The yellow vests, however, are biding their time. To coincide with the results of the debate, 700 representatives of local groups met last weekend in Saint-Nazaire to discuss the way forward. As one told Le Monde: “We thought we were running a sprint, but it turns out it’s a marathon.”

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