French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to calm the “yellow vest” movement and find a way to address the issues by holding a so-called grand debate can be a good case study for those who seek solutions to social upheavals.
The French protest movement was triggered last November by a trucker who was upset by fuel tax increment proposed by the government. Soon, through social media, crowds of concerned drivers linked up and began protesting throughout the country, wearing yellow vests.
The government explained that the fuel tax increment was recommended out of environmental and sustainability considerations. The tax proposal was postponed in December 2018 amid strong opposition from the public.
However, the “yellow vests” weren’t satisfied with the decision and demanded total withdrawal of the bill. Voices denouncing biased economic policies and other shortcomings of the government also emerged alongside and unsurprisingly, the protesters asked Macron to step down.
In an attempt to calm down the weekly protests, the French leader initiated a grand debate early this year. In two months’ time, over 10,000 community assemblies were held to help authorities determine which policies citizens want the government to focus on.
Macron attended as many of the nationwide town-hall meetings as possible, spending some 92 hours in total to listen to opinions coming directly from civilians. Despite occasional interruptions by the yellow vests, a consensus gradually emerged that peaceful discussions are the way out.
Did the grand debate work? Before drawing a conclusion, let’s look at how both the grassroot and middle-class French citizens – the protestors in yellow vests – have been struggling. Owing to slow economic growth and heavy taxes, the living standard of the working class had stopped improving for years.
As the yellow vests mostly live far away from downtown areas, they need to drive to work. As rent and utility bills rose every year, they were finding it hard to save up or make ends meet.
When campaigning for president, Macron had visited countless neighborhoods across France, building an image of being a down-to-earth political figure. However, after being elected as president, there was a feeling among the public that he became an unapproachable, top-down leader, who would only express himself through speeches and instructions.
But after the yellow vest protests, he initiated the grand debate in society and re-opened his doors to citizens, especially to the grassroots. He then introduced a series of policy reforms, including plans to abolish his alma mater Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) to promote social fairness, in hopes of breaking the ice.
With all the efforts, Macron regained his popularity and his support rate has bounced back to a level close to that seen in the time prior to the protests. The yellow vest movement has been on for more than 35 weeks, but the protester numbers have come down greatly.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 29
Translation by Connie Li
[Chinese version 中文版]
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