French PM highlights 'need for justice and equity' after nationwide debate

Philippe Lopez, AFP | French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe gives remarks outlining initial findings of the nationwide debate at the Grand Palais, in Paris, on April 8, 2019.

French PM Édouard Philippe on Monday outlined the initial conclusions of the so-called Grand Débat, or grand debate, a nationwide public consultation President Emmanuel Macron launched in January in response to the Yellow Vest protest movement.


“We have reached a point where hesitating would be worse than a mistake, it would be a failing,” the prime minister told a crowd in Paris on Monday. “The need for change is so radical that any conservatism, any cold feet, would be in my eyes unforgiveable,” he said before sketching out four requirements to emerge from the debate: cutting taxes, addressing the sentiment of neglect in some territories, building tools for a “more deliberative democracy” and better responding to climate concerns.

Philippe presented the early findings at the Grand Palais in central Paris, just steps from the Champs Élysées, which has served as an occasionally fiery theatre of discontent during Yellow Vest protest clashes with police over the 21 consecutive weekends of demonstrations since the movement began in November.

Named after the high-visibility gear French motorists are required to keep in their vehicles, the movement was initially meant to oppose a slated fuel-tax increase. Amid the outpouring of popular condemnation displayed on French roadways and roundabouts, that tax hike was quickly shelved and more than €10 billion worth of government measures pledged to ease cost of living concerns. But the popular movement soon grew into a backlash against Macron’s administration and elites more broadly.

Macron launched the nationwide debate in January, saying he “intend[ed] to transform anger into solutions”. Last week in Corsica, the president wrapped up the last in a series of marathon town hall meetings, televised and live-streamed, that saw him take questions for several hours at a time in cities and towns across the country.

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Tip of the iceberg

But those town hall debates were merely the tip of the Grand Débat iceberg. The initial findings presented Monday stem from a sweeping campaign to gather grievances and suggestions contributed in person as well as online. The initiative cost €12 million.

In the end, visitors to the "" platform contributed 1,932,881 answers and comments to the debate online, in addition to the 27,400 letters and e-mails sent. At 16,337 city and town halls across the country, comment books were made available for the public to leave their concerns and suggestions. A total of 10,134 local meetings were held, drawing nearly half a million participants; 282 of those rendez-vous were conducted abroad, in 82 countries.

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The data collected – some 630,000 typed or handwritten pages – were processed by 150 people, either manually or using automated text analysis software, and are available en masse to anyone interested, the prime minister said, stressing that there isn’t an official reading of the nearly three-month debate.

During his remarks at the Grand Palais, Philippe conceded that any attempt to summarise the “tens of millions of words and tens of thousands of ideas” put forward during the exercise would necessarily appear simplistic.

Tax cuts needed – and fast

In outlining some of the key demands that surfaced from the hours of discussions and in the reams of data, Philippe noted “an immense fiscal exasperation”. “The debates, I believe, clearly indicate to us the direction to follow: We must, and more quickly, lower taxes.”

“The French have also understood, with a lot of maturity … that we cannot lower taxes if we do not lower public spending,” the prime minister added.

Philippe discussed the “mistrust” of government and “profound malaise” in French society upon which the nationwide debate had shed light and spoke of an “immense need for justice and equity”. The prime minister, whose remarks were briefly interrupted by a heckler who was escorted from the room, said that participants repeatedly underlined sentiments of “isolation”, “abandonment”, “indifference”, and “lack of regard” and he called for “restoring balance between metropolises and small and medium-sized municipalities”.

Philippe is slated to discuss the Grand Débat further before the lower-house National Assembly on Tuesday and the Senate on Wednesday. Macron is due to provide courses of action in response to the debate’s findings at a later date.

(With AFP and REUTERS)

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