(CN) – Vying to quell public unrest and a wave of protests, French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to ask the French electorate to vote in a May referendum.
Since mid-November, nationwide protests have knocked Macron off balance and upended his pro-business agenda. He’s been lambasted as the president for the rich, aloof from the everyday concerns of French people.
France has a generous welfare system but still many French are frustrated with high unemployment, a stagnant economy and weak purchasing power.
In response to the protests, Macron has scrapped fuel tax hikes, raised the minimum wage and opened a two-month-long nationwide debate where people can voice their concerns and solutions to France’s problems at meetings and through an online portal.
Now, Macron appears to hope a referendum will help heal even further the rift between his government and the French electorate. News of the possible referendum comes as his abysmal poll numbers begin to inch up.
French media say Macron’s government wants the referendum to coincide with elections for the European Union’s parliament on May 26.
Le Journal du Dimanche, a French weekly, reported Sunday that Macron’s government has already ordered ballot papers, among other steps preparing for the referendum.
In the report, unnamed government sources said Macron must decide soon whether to hold the referendum, but that he could wait until after March 15, the date when the nationwide debate ends, to choose the questions posed.
Possible questions on the ballot could be whether France should reduce the number of lawmakers and adopt term limits, according to Le Journal du Dimanche. Macron favors such changes.
Since the birth of France’s Fifth Republic, which began in 1958 and set up a strong president who splits power with a prime minister, there have been nine referendums. The last one took place in 2005 when voters shot down a proposed new European constitution, a big defeat for then-President Jacques Chirac.
The idea of a referendum does not come out of the blue. Many of the “yellow vest” protesters — so nicknamed for their high-visibility apparel used by motorists in emergencies – have called on Macron to hold a referendum, and the president recently told reporters that it was “on the table.”
“The referendum is seen as being a possible final act to conclude the debate, which would also serve as a response to the demands from the ‘yellow vests’ for more direct democracy,” the Agence France-Presse reported on Monday.
Calling for a referendum to coincide with the European Parliament elections could boost turnout for an election that has spurred tepid excitement in the past, French media reported.
Higher turnout could help Macron, who has ambitions to become a stronger leader inside the politics of Europe. He has presented himself as Europe’s hope for a centrist leader and set himself up as the main opponent to the bloc’s growing nationalist and populist parties.
He won the presidency in 2017 by building up his own party, La République en Marche, and this will be the first European election in which his new party will be on the ballot.
There’s another political calculus likely being considered in calling a referendum for the May European elections: High turnout could help Macron fend off the far-right party of Marine Le Pen, Rassemblement National. Le Pen’s party is now polling well and rivals Macron’s party.
Due to low turnout, Le Pen’s party and other anti-EU parties have done well in previous European elections. Le Pen, in sync with other nationalists, is opposed to the expanding role of the EU in the lives of Europeans and wants to curtail its powers. By contrast, Macron is in favor of broadening the EU’s reach and making the bloc even more integrated economically, socially and militarily.
During an interview Sunday on BFM television, Le Pen said Macron was using a referendum to distract voters and she claimed that he had decided to hold a referendum even before establishing the national debate.
Le Parisiennewspaper warned that a referendum “can also be a double-edged sword” if voters choose to “use the referendum to sanction a power in place.”
The leader of another opposition party, Laurent Wauquiez of the Republicans, said a referendum would need to be about more than the single issue of reducing the number of lawmakers.
“Of course it’s an important issue, but if it’s the only issue that we propose to the people at the end, then the president is taking a great risk,” he said, according to AFP.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)