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Emmanuel Macron unveils ‘great national debate’ to calm protests

President made his appeal in a 'letter to the French' following weeks of 'yellow vest' turmoil

Emmanuel Macron published a personal letter to French citizens spelling out his goals for a 'great national debate'. AFP
Emmanuel Macron published a personal letter to French citizens spelling out his goals for a 'great national debate'. AFP

French leader Emmanuel Macron on Sunday spelt out the questions underpinning his “great national debate”, a public consultation aiming to quell “yellow vest” anger after nearly two months of often-violent protests.

Mr Macron made his appeal in a “letter to the French” released on Sunday, following the ninth consecutive Saturday of nationwide rallies.

The protests have become the biggest crisis of Mr Macron’s presidency. He hopes that returning to the more participatory democracy he promised in his 2017 grass-roots campaign will satisfy protesters’ demands for a greater say in the running of the country, amid accusations that he is too aloof and his policies favour the wealthy.


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France reeling from new round of 'yellow vests' protests


Mr Macron said the debates are “neither an election nor a referendum” and would revolve around 35 questions on issues such as taxation, democracy, the environment and immigration.

“I intend to transform anger into solutions,” he said in the letter, which was to be published on Monday, but was released by his office late on Sunday.

The questions that will be debated include: “Which taxes do you think should be lowered first?”, “Should some public services that are out of date or too expensive be eliminated?”, “What concrete proposals do you think would accelerate our environmental transition?” and “Should we use more referendums?”.

The immigration question asked: “Once our asylum obligations are fulfilled, do you want parliament to be able to set annual targets?”.

While Mr Macron said there were “no forbidden questions”, he did say that the right to seek asylum “could not be questioned”.

He also said the government would not revisit steps taken “to encourage investment and make work pay more”.

One of the frequent demands from the protesters, who are mostly from rural or small-town France, is a repeal of Mr Macron’s move last year to cut a so-called fortune tax, which was previously levied on high-earners.

“We will not pursue tax cuts without lowering the overall level of our public spending,” Mr Macron said in the letter.

Mr Macron said he would “directly report” on the consultation in the month after the debates, which are to run from January 15 to March 15.

The president will embark on a tour of town-hall meetings around the country, the first of which will be held on Tuesday with local mayors in Bourgtheroulde in north-west France.

The national debate is the third prong of the Mr Macron’s strategy for ending the yellow-vest protests, which broke out over high fuel taxes in November but then spread into a revolt about living standards.

Mr Macron has already scrapped fuel tax hikes as part of a €10 billion (Dh42.1bn) package of wage increases and tax relief for low earners.

At the same time, the government vowed to crack down on the continuing Saturday protests in Paris and other cities, with their now-routine scenes of burning cars, vandalised shops and clashes with police.

Although the latest protests saw an increase in turnout to 84,000 from 50,000 the previous week, there was a decline in violence, despite hundreds of arrests and fighting with police in Paris and other cities.

To give a more unified response in the debate, some yellow vests tried to form a "founding congress" in the southern city of Perpignan on Sunday.

However, the attempt to build a more leadership structure – which the movement has so far shunned – quickly failed, with organisers shouted down by some of the 600 in attendance, a third of whom walked out.

The protesters were also criticised on Sunday for attacks and threats against journalists across the country.

Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said “a turning point has been reached” after journalists were beaten, kicked and threatened with rape during the rallies.

“We call on the spokespersons of the ‘Yellow Vests’ to solemnly condemn increasing violence against journalists during demonstrations,” he tweeted.

Updated: January 14, 2019 01:46 PM