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A peek inside the town hall meetings triggered by Yellow Vest protests

FRANCE 24 | Residents attend a town hall meeting in Trouville-sur-Mer, France on January 24, 2019

Trouville-sur-Mer, a picturesque town in the northern French region of Normandy, organised its first town hall meeting last week as part of a broader national debate. At the event, attendees had one main question: “Where does our money go?”

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Around 50 people gathered last Thursday in a reception room at the local town hall, which abuts Trouville’s famous seaside casino. Most of the attendees were older, with strands of grey in their hair. The crowd was comprised of elected officials, municipal employees and members of the ongoing Yellow Vest protest movement, which led French President Emmanuel Macron to launch the national debate earlier this month.

Not a single seat in the room was empty, pointed out Trouville’s centrist mayor, Christophe Caron, who organised the event. On the agenda: public spending and transitioning towards a green economy – although the first of the two issues largely dominated the debate.

“We have to reduce the number of lawmakers. We also have to reduce their personal expenses. It’s costing us a fortune,” complained a city official, who described himself as a “Yellow Vest in heart and soul” – ironically touching on one of Macron’s campaign promises.

His comments were dismissed by city councilor Élisabeth Schemla, a member of Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) party. “[Lawmakers’ personal expenses] cost only 1 of every 1,000 of public spending,” she said.

Caron echoed Schemla, arguing that any measure limiting expenses would be “purely symbolic”. The mayor’s words, however, were met with an immediate outcry from the room. “[It’s why] Yellow Vests feel disrespected,” pointed out an attendee.

Throughout the two-hour debate, one question – the same one heard at Yellow Vest protests across the country for the past two months – was repeated again and again: “Where does our money go?”

“We’re under record fiscal pressure, with the value-added tax, income tax, social charges… yet public services are disappearing, hospitals and police stations are closing, and maternity clinics are moving away,” one townsperson said.

‘It’s easy to blame civil servants’

“I’ve studied the state budget, and I don’t get it,” said another attendee. “All I saw was the massive cost of payroll. But where are all the civil servants?”

The point clearly struck a nerve on both sides of the debate, with officials hard-pressed to respond.

“Whether it be Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande or Macron, it’s always the same rhetoric that there are too many civil servants,” conceded one municipal employee, listing the last four presidents of France.

“They keep beating us over the head with this point, but cost-of-living adjustments to our salaries have been frozen for the past eight years,” he added, saying he earned €1,500 per month. The median standard of living in France is 1,710 per month, according to a 2016 study by The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE).

“We have to stop looking at society through a financial lens, because that’s what leads to divisions,” said a retired doctor in the audience. “It’s easy to blame civil servants, but they are there to create social ties, to help people in need, like those who work at tax centres… or postal workers.”

‘We have to go get money from the big guys’

“Public service is at the heart of our country,” said another townsperson, blaming instead “the rich who keep getting rich while the poor keep getting poorer”.

In a corner of the room, a woman with red hair added her voice to the growing chorus: “We have to go get money from the big guys, not civil servants,” she said. “Every year, we lose €60 to 80 billion to tax havens.”

A recent report by Solidaires Finances Publiques, the largest union representing French tax authorities, found that tax evasion actually cost the government between €80 and 100 billion in 2017.

Mayor Caron took her point, saying the fight against tax evasion should be a priority. From there the debate wended its way to the government’s controversial decision to replace a tax on wealth with a new property tax, which one attendee said he wanted repealed.

The change to the country’s tax system had been largely attributed for a drop in charitable giving last year. Under the previous rules, households with an income over €1.3 million could deduct 75 percent of charitable contributions (or up to €50,000) from their declarations. Although taxpayers can still write-off donations under the new property tax, it applies to only half as many people.

Another issue raised was France’s 35-hour work week, which one townsperson said “was implemented to create jobs, but it hasn’t worked”. He used the example of a nearby bakery that a judge recently ruled had violated work codes by remaining open seven days a week. The bakery’s managers have since said they fear they will have to lay-off some of their staff.

“They’re preventing us from working,” the man said to resounding applause.

A debate without ‘headway’

Circling back to the question, “Where does our money go?” one civil servant said the answer could be found on a website for the national debate. For every €1,000 of tax revenue, €575 is dedicated to social security, including retirement, healthcare and unemployment benefits. The discussion then shifted to joblessness.

“It’s an issue that hasn’t been addressed by Yellow Vests, even though it affects 10 million people, three million of whom are between the ages of 15 and 34,” Schemla said.

The unemployment rate in France has hovered above nine percent for over the past decade, according to data collected by INSEE.

Schemla said employment is a major issue in Trouville, where restaurants struggle to hire staff because of uncompetitive wages.

“We could review job seekers more thoroughly and revise low salaries,” said the mayor, adding that for “many small and mid-sized businesses, this would be synonymous with bankruptcy”.

Another townsperson complained that the absence of a European-wide minimum wage has “created unfair competition”. The minimum wage in Poland is €500 per month, whereas it €900 per month in Spain, while it is just a little under €1,500 in France.

“Do we need to consider a uniform minimum wage to avoid competition among workers?” he asked.

As the debate continued, some attendees made a silent exit. Among them was Michel, 77, who said he was disappointed because the debate “had made no headway”.

“We still don’t have an answer to how to live with just €600 per month,” he said.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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