(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.
“It is clear that the period that our country is going through shows that we need to give more strength to democracy and citizenship,” Macron said in his letter.
He cited some possibilities: making greater use of referendums, counting blank protest ballots – a common practice in France – as legitimate, restructuring how citizens are represented in government and giving them more say in government.
This national debate ends on March 15 and Macron has pledged to outline a course of action for his government to follow once the mountain of ideas submitted during the two-month initiative has been sifted through.
In a way, with this experiment in listening to citizens Macron is taking a page straight from the handbook of his political enemies: Europe’s populists.
Across Europe, the basic principles of representative democracy have come under attack by people who feel their voices are not being heard. Traditional parties are being weakened by a number of new parties rallying voters through new digital participatory platforms and advocating schemes to bring rank-and-file party members closer to the core of policymaking through online forums, referendums and votes for candidates.
These populist parties – prominently, Italy’s 5-Star Movement, Spain’s Podemos and France’s La France Insoumise – say the internet is enabling people to have a direct say in government, which is known as direct democracy.
So far, the reactions to Macron’s attempt at direct democracy are mixed.
Many protesters have called the initiative fake and are boycotting it. Some political opponents too have called into question the authenticity of the national forum.
“What I want is citizen-sponsored referendums so that citizens can repeal laws, oversee spending and recall senior officials or even the president if they want,” Marie-Helene Guais, a 60-year-old protester, told the Agence France-Press, a French news service. AFP reported many protesters, known as the “yellow vests,” view Macron’s call for a national debate as an attempt to drain energy from their movement.
Still, many French are participating in the debates.
One of them is Lionel Duzer, a 42-year-old food worker, who helped organize a small meeting in Gers in southwest France.
At his meeting, 35 people showed up and they talked about the issues facing so many French: A lack of purchasing power, taxes, public spending and politics.
In an email, he told Courthouse News that he liked the government’s willingness to listen to citizens. But he remained skeptical.
“We will see what the government does with the feedback it gets from the citizens,” he said.
Unless Macron listens, “it will end badly,” Duzer said. “It is time to listen to the citizens.”
For his part, Macron is striving to appear eager to listen and prove he’s not an elite but rather at one with regular people. At a recent hours-long meeting with mayors to talk about solutions and problems, he discarded his suit and left his shirt cuffs unbuttoned. A French newspaper, Le Parisien, described his performance as Jupiter seeking to descend from his pedestal. Not far away, though, protesters and police clashed.
Duhamel, the political scientist, said the new national forum may be a first step in resolving “the deep and lasting crisis that our democracies are going through.” He said people are mistrustful of policies and there is a need to reconcile “power and the people, elites and citizens.”
Duhamel said for the Great National Debate to be a success will depend on how many people participate and how well the government takes into account what it learns.
For Macron, if it helps heal France and puts an end to the weekly protests it’d be a major victory.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)