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Macron ‘mulls referendum’ to quell French Yellow Vest crisis

Ludovic Marin, POOL, AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron addresses some 600 mayors gathered in Souillac, south-central France, as part of the "great national debate", on January 18, 2019

President Emmanuel Macron, whose popularity plummeted to an all-time low after a proposed fuel tax rise sparked the nationwide Yellow Vest movement, is considering a strategic coup in the form of a referendum, French media reported on Sunday.

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According to French weekly Journal du Dimanche (JDD), which cited a number of unnamed sources in the young leader’s entourage, the ballot papers have already been “pre-ordered” and everyone is now awaiting Macron’s green light to set the machinery for a May 26 referendum in motion. The vote would, in that case, coincide with the European Parliament elections.

“We’ve taken all the necessary measures,” one source was quoted as saying, while another said that “the chances of a May 26 referendum happening are very high”.

The referendum is likely to contain several questions on a number of economic and social issues, and would be the first of its kind in the Fifth Republic’s history. JDD speculated that such questions might include whether France needs to reduce its number of lawmakers or whether their mandates should be shortened.

Macron’s handling of the wave of discontent demonstrated by the Yellow Vest movement has been particularly ill-received by the French and has badly damaged his popularity ratings.

Although the 40-year-old centre-right leader has managed to recover some support after backpedaling on the proposed fuel tax hike and launching a national debate on the grievances fuelling the Yellow Vest movement (the “great national debate”), support for Macron has plummeted from 47 percent to just 27.7 percent in the past 12 months.

A president who 'listens'

According to JDD sources, Macron has considered four different options that he hopes will not only quell the Yellow Vest movement – which staged its 12th consecutive weekend rally across France on Saturday – but also convince the French that he is not the arrogant, upper-class snob he has repeatedly been accused of being. His aim is to come across as a president who actually listens to the French people.

JDD said that the options on the table included the possibility of the Macron-led government either striking a deal with the country’s grassroots movements and trade unions (a move similar to the one that ended the 1968 student protests, led to a 35 percent increase in minimum wages and a 10 percent increase in average real wages), dissolving the lower house of parliament, announcing a government reshuffle or launching a referendum on the issues that really concern the French.

“The Yellow Vest crisis almost killed us. A referendum is a very strong moment for citizens and would restart the machinery and allow us to politically get back [to where we were] to continue our reforms,” said a person close to the president.

“I’m hoping that we will be super-disruptive, super-original and that we will take back control by once again surprising everyone,” he said, referring to Macron’s shock breakthrough in the 2017 presidential elections.

The timing of the referendum, which would be held on the same day as the European parliamentary elections, is also part of Macron’s strategy to draw more French to the polls and have them participate.

Some of the people JDD spoke to suggested the key would be the type of questions posed and the way they are formulated. “The French must not feel cornered,” said Didier Paris, a spokesman for the president’s La République En Marche (LREM) party.

“It’s something that has to be decided on fast,” a person with insight into the situation said.

Should the referendum go ahead, Macron is likely to announce it at the end of the three-month-long national debate, which is expected to conclude on March 23.  

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