(CN) – On Tuesday, the French government opened the gates to an unprecedented public forum: A web portal where citizens can offer solutions on how to improve France and air their long lists of grievances.
Think of it as France's attempt to revive the ancient Greek agora, a place where citizens shared ideas and participated in the everyday decisions of government.
Or think of it as French President Emmanuel Macron's political life raft: An attempt to salvage a presidency derailed by weeks of violent protests and months of public outrage and dissatisfaction.
On Jan. 15, Macron launched the Great National Debate, an initiative inviting French citizens at home and abroad to gather and discuss what ails France and how to make French life, government and democracy better. Anyone anywhere is invited to organize a meeting; dozens of such meetings have already taken place.
On Tuesday, another key aspect of this Grand Débat National began: an online portal was opened where citizens can submit their ideas and criticisms. Within hours of its launch, thousands of people were flooding the portal with their feelings and thoughts.
“Calling on all citizens to express themselves, deliberate and suggest solutions in multiple areas is unprecedented in France and elsewhere,” said Olivier Duhamel, a political scientist, in an interview with the Institut Montaigne, a French think tank.
This national experiment in direct democracy is the response to the unprecedented protests that have rocked France, Duhamel said.
Since mid-November, hundreds of thousands of French have taken to the streets, outraged over Macron's agenda of reforms. They paralyzed Paris, storming government buildings and national monuments. Police have fired rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas at demonstrators, injuring many seriously.
Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker, took office in 2017 after building up his own centrist political movement and winning the presidential election in a landslide against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
He promised to re-invigorate France and its stagnant economy by overhauling the economy, society and politics. To that end, he cut a wealth tax, instigated labor and pension reforms and talked about reforms in everything from schools to the constitution.
But his popularity plummeted last year after his reforms and tax cut for the wealthy failed to breathe new life into the economy. A scandal involving his former bodyguard, who was filmed hitting a May Day protester, and incidents that some say show him as aloof and uncaring about the struggles of ordinary people further damaged his reputation. For many French, he became an out-of-touch president for the rich.
The protests, which began from an online petition and Facebook groups, were initially driven by outrage over fuel tax hikes meant to wean people away from diesel vehicles and help combat climate change. But the protests have morphed into a wide-ranging demonstration against Macron and government more generally.
To quell the protests, Macron in December promised to roll back the fuel tax hike, cut some taxes and raise the minimum wage. That wasn't all: He also said he would listen to the French people.
And that's what the Great National Debate has become: His great listening session.
In an open letter, he said he wanted to forge a new contract between the government and the people.
“In this way with you I intend to transform anger into solutions,” he said. “Your proposals will therefore make it possible to build a new contract for the nation.”
In the letter, he said there were “no forbidden questions” but he set out four main areas for the debate: The environment and ecological issues, taxes and public spending, public services and the organization of government, and citizenship and democracy.