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Macron launches his 'national debate' with speech in Normandy

Philippe Wojazer/Pool/Reuters | French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting with mayors from rural Normandy to launch a "great national debate" on January 15.

French President Emmanuel Macron tried to assuage the anger of Yellow Vest protesters and others as he launches his proposed "national debate" with a speech in the northern town of Grand Bourgtheroulde on Tuesday.

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Macron hopes that by introducing a more inclusive, participatory style of governing he can take some of the anger out of the Yellow Vest movement. In an open letter to the French citizenry on Sunday, Macron listed more than 30 questions to be put to a "grand national debate" and said he hoped as many citizens as possible would participate in Town Hall-style gatherings across the country.

"We won't agree on everything, that's normal, that's democracy," he said in his letter. "But at least we'll show we are a people who are not afraid to talk, exchange and debate."

The meeting in Grand Bourgtheroulde kicked off two months of public consultations in towns and villages across the country on four main themes: taxation, France's transition to a low-carbon economy, democracy and citizenship, and the functioning of the state and public services.

Following the two-month debate Macron said he would come up with a "new contract for the nation".

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

Security was tight for his visit to Grand Bourgtheroulde, a town of 3,500 people that lies about 30 kilometres from the city of Rouen and where a Yellow Vest demonstration ended in clashes with police on Saturday.

Many Yellow Vests and opposition politicians have reacted sceptically to Macron’s initiative, however, calling it a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to sap the strength of their movement.

They cite the Macron government's refusal to consider bringing back a controversial “wealth tax” on high earners as proof that it has already decided the outcome of the dialogue.

Analysts and many in Macron's own party fear the public consultations will spur a cascade of nebulous demands or calls for the repeal of longstanding laws, such as those that abolished the death penalty or allowed gay marriage.

An Elabe poll released Tuesday showed the French feel lukewarm about the national debate, with 40 percent saying they intend to participate but 66 percent saying they did not think it would end the Yellow Vest unrest.

The task of organising the forums has fallen to local government minister Sébastien Lecornu and junior environment minister Emmanuelle Wargon. Five independent auditors will be appointed to ensure the debates remain free of government interference.  

The Yellow Vest protests began in mid-November over a proposed fuel tax increase that would have unfairly penalised farmers and rural or small-town inhabitants who depend on their cars for transport. Since then they have grown into a broader push to tackle income inequality and give citizens more of a say in government decision-making, including calls for introducing citizen-sponsored referendums.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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