Seeking to quell Yellow Vest anger, Macron says some of the poor are just 'screwing around'

President Emmanuel Macron's hopes of quelling the economic anger of Yellow Vest protesters by launching a national debate ran aground Tuesday when he sparked new outrage by saying some of those struggling economically were just “screwing around”.

Ludovic Marin, AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron addresses a gathering of mayors in the Normandy city of Grand Bourgtheroulde on January 15, 2019, as part of the official launch of a "great national debate".

Macron had planned to try to quell a rising tide of economic anger with a speech in Normandy announcing a round of public gatherings that would form a "grand national debate" on the issues facing France, from tax reform to adopting green energies.

But instead he sparked an immediate backlash while on a surprise visit to the town of Gasny by seeming to suggest that many of those struggling economically had only themselves to blame.

Even as the French president expressed his desire to "empower" people in “difficult economic circumstances”, he mused that while some were “doing the right thing” others were just “screwing around” with the system.

His sentiments, as well as the vulgar expression he used in French, sparked immediate reactions on social media from politicians on both the left and the right.

Socialist politician Olivier Faure was one of the first to fire back.

”I want to answer the president: There are rich people who are good citizens and rich people who screw around, and who seriously screw around,” he told Reuters. “This way of always ... [suggesting] that it is the poorest who are committing the abuses cannot be countenanced.”

MP Daniel Fasquelle of the right-wing Les Républicains party tweeted:

“Mr. #Macron launches the grand debate by targeting troubled French people who are 'screwing around'. How can we unite and appease the country if we continue to stigmatise and set the French against each other? This requires a change of policy but also of attitude on the part of [those in] power."

"Emmanuel #Macron wants to 'empower' people in 'difficulty' because 'there are some who do the right thing and there are those who screw around' according to him..." tweeted MP Valérie Boyer of Les Républicains."

"[T]he year 2019 begins as it ended. Debates are now open but still the same contempt for the French!"

Macron had already unleashed a fresh wave of indignation on Friday, when he said that too many French citizens “think they can get things without making an effort".

The 41-year-old centrist has made a series of comments perceived by many French as arrogant and out of touch, including when he told an unemployed man that he could find him a job just by "crossing the street".

France has had an unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent for most of the past decade.

A former Rothschild investment banker, critics have slammed Macron as "the president of the rich". His comments while in office have also drawn unfavourable comparisons to Marie Antoinette, who is viewed as having been similarly insensitive to the plight of the poor.

'Talk, exchange and debate'

Macron had hoped that by introducing a more inclusive, participatory style of governing he could take some of the anger out of the Yellow Vest movement. In an open letter to the French citizenry on Sunday, Macron listed 35 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 and REUTERS)

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