Commentary Game on democracy

Citizen debates will not resolve Macron's problems

No wonder the Yellow Vests movement is skeptical about the debate. All the topics for the so-called citizens’ consultations were decided by the government, which also admitted that the conclusions will not be followed through. So, why even bother with such games in democracy?

France simply cannot afford to radically lower taxes and increase its minimum wage and pensions. For the administration, it’s almost impossible to respond to the Yellow Vests and their demands without abandoning its reformist program. Therefore, some time ago, Macron came up with an escape plan. He offered a ‘national citizens’ debate’ during which all the dissatisfied French people could speak their mind. At the same time, Macron made it clear that the most important program goals are not to be changed.

Surveys show that French citizens welcome Macron’s idea. Nearly 45 percent of them express an interest in participating and 81 percent are familiar with the consultations. Unfortunately for Macron, just a week ahead of the consultations, Chantal Jouanno, who was in charge of the project, stepped down in reaction to public controversy over her salary.

What also remains unclear are the topics of the discussions. The government set four priorities but omit debates on the explosive topic of migration. Even though Jouanno officially proclaimed that no topic is forbidden, just a day after Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux stated that the debate on abortion, death penalty or same-sex marriage is off the table and that the government is not abandoning its fundamental values.

The bottom line is that French citizens are rewarded with the consultations, while the contents is fully up to the moderator and it’s for certain that politicians won’t act upon public concerns. Hereby the government is risking that those who put on a yellow vest get even angrier. The consultations are far from what they asked for – a referendum based on a civil initiative.

There is also no consensus among the government and while the left wing praises Macron’s idea and is keen to hear the citizens out, the right wing remains skeptical. Citizens’ consultations can easily end up like last year in the Czech Republic, by achieving nothing at all. Only 2,000 people took part in the Czech consultations, which were supposed to bring the EU closer to the citizens.

Even though we may assume that more engaged French citizens will be more interested in the consultations, it is not enough to calm the situation down. An already weakened President Macron can achieve one thing only – buy some extra time.