‘Yellow Vests’ open a new front in the battle: Popular referendums

Many of the "Yellow Vests" who hit the streets again on Saturday wielded signs with the acronym RIC – for "Citizens' Initiative Referendum" – as demonstrators demanded popular votes be held to allow citizens to vet government policy proposals.

Pascal Guyot, AFP | Yellow Vests protesting on December 15, 2018, express support for the introduction of popular referendums, or RICs.

In a list of demands released in late November, the Yellow Vests ask that any policy proposal garnering 700,000 signatures trigger a national referendum to be held within a year. The RIC is one item on a list of 42 measures being demanded by the Yellow Vests.

A 2008 constitutional amendment provided for holding a referendum if a measure had the support of one-fifth of the members of Parliament and the backing of one-tenth of registered voters. But the citizens' initiative has never been used, despite the launch of a website dedicated to listing the public proposals currently under debate.

Several of the 2017 presidential candidates were vocal supporters of popular referendums, notably far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon also proposed a measure that would have called on Parliament to debate any proposal that received support from at least 1 percent of the electorate.

An RIC system already exists in some countries, notably Switzerland, where voters are regularly called upon to vote on policies. Italy’s constitution calls for a vote to be held if a proposal gets 500,000 signatures or is backed by at least five regional councils.

Those Yellow Vests who support holding public referendums nevertheless differ on the mechanics, with some arguing the public votes should merely inform government policy (with no obligation on the part of the government to implement them) and others insisting the will of the people should automatically become policy.

There have also been suggestions for setting up a platform to allow citizens to submit their own policy proposals; those that garner a certain number of signatures online would then proceed to a vote.

And so far the government seems at least somewhat amenable to the idea.

In an interview with Les Echos newspaper published online Sunday evening, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said the government had "made mistakes", among them that it had "not listened enough to the French people".

He said there were plans to debate holding referendums on government policy, adding that they could be a "good tool for a democracy".

The French government is likely hoping that the recent decline in Yellow Vest protesters indicates that the most direct challenge so far to Emmanuel Macron's presidency may finally be losing steam. The interior ministry estimated some 66,000 people demonstrated across France for a fifth straight Saturday on December 15, down from 125,000 the week before.

Macron's approval rating has dipped to 23 percent over the last month, according to a poll published Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche weekly. In an effort to defuse the crisis Macron has already announced a series of measures, including a €100 monthly increase in the minimum wage and reducing some taxes on low-income pensioners. On December 5 the government abandoned plans for the tax hike on fuel that first ignited the protests .

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