Nearly 1,000 local meetings have already taken place or been declared since the process began two weeks ago. President Macron has made advertised or impromptu appearances at six of them, including two this week.
His performances have been impressive but he should now take a back seat and listen. This was supposed to be a chance for the invisible and the inaudible to express themselves. It was not an opportunity for the President to demonstrate that he can speak for seven hours without notes on everything from rural speed limits to fishing quotas to Brexit.
His occasional comments in French village halls on Britain’s national nervous breakdown have provoked synthetic fury in the Eurosceptic press in the UK. Seen in context, they were mostly intended to dismiss simplistic Gilet Jaunes ideas for direct democracy or popular government by perpetual referenda.
Brexit, Macron said in Normandy last month, “says a lot about what referenda, which seem nice, can create. (The 2016 EU membership) referendum has been manipulated, manipulated from outside by a lot of what we call fake news…. Good luck to the representatives of the nation who have to implement a thing which doesn't exist.”
Now, perversely, President Macron is considering a way out of the Gilets Jaune crisis by…calling a referendum.
The Grand Débat National was supposed to channel the provincial anger which spawned the Gilets Jaunes movement without letting the Gilets Jaunes dominate the national conversation. The President promised that the debate would shape the second part of his five-year mandate in four principal areas: taxation and spending; the organisation of the state; democracy and citizenship; and the “transition” to a more ecologically-friendly economy.
The debate ends in mid-March. A “synthesis” will be published in mid-April. Good luck with that.
How to make sense of the disparate, conflicting views expressed in scores of village halls and town halls or the tens of thousands of contributions made through a largely unregulated internet portal? How to know which ideas are genuinely supported by the French electorate?
To answer that question, President Macron is considering calling a referendum, on the same day as the European elections on 26 May.
No decision has yet been made. Several senior government figures and most opposition leaders have already attacked the idea. Nonetheless, it is reported that the Elysée Palace is taking the proposal seriously.
There would be multiple questions, we are told.
A yellow vest protester looks at a cover of Le Point news magazine reading in French “Who is the boss?” during a recent protest movement in Marseille. Photo: AFP
Should French politicians have limits on how many times they can run for office? Should the national assembly have fewer deputies? Should blank or spoiled ballots be counted as part of the official vote (potentially effecting the outcome in a two round electoral system)?
These are Gilets Jaunes proposals but rather peripheral ones. The rumoured referendum questions would avoid the core demands of the yellow vests: Macron’s removal from office; the abolition of professional politicians; the creation of a system of government by popular vote or referenda d’initiative citoyenne.
Those are undemocratic ideas masquerading as democratic ones. They deserve to be rejected out of hand. It appears, however, that the Macron Referendum would also exclude more specific Gilets Jaunes demands such as the restoration of the wealth tax or a significant, one-off rise in the minimum wage.
The danger is that the referendum will be seen as a way of ignoring the results of the Grand Débat, rather than acting upon it. Referenda in France have a habit of blowing up in the faces of those who call them. It was a referendum which ended Charles de Gaulle’s career in 1969. It was a referendum which destroyed the last two years of Jacques Chirac’s presidency in 2005.
How could Macron lose a referendum with multiple questions? Easily. Popular anger at being asked to resolve the Gilets Jaunes crisis with a series of minor, technical propositions could make the whole Great Debate exercise appear to have been a fraud.
Is it a fraud? The jury is out on that question, even inside the Elysée Palace and the government.
There are some Macron advisers and ministers, I am told, who believe that the Great Debate should be taken seriously. By absorbing lessons from popular opinion, they believe, Macron could yet save his presidency and even make it a success.
Others, more cynical, want to say. “Thank you, oh great French people, for all the advice. That’s what we were planning to do anyway.” The Macron reform programme would then go forward as planned.
Macron was right first time. A referendum to answer the Gilets Jaunes would be a bad idea.
The yellow vest movement has revealed a genuine hunger for direct, grass-roots influence on government. This should be answered by making the Great National Debate a permanent feature of French democracy, through a network of citizen’s assemblies. Participants could be selected at random like juries.
Politicians should listen and learn but finally they must decide and govern.
You can follow John Lichfield on Twitter @john_lichfield.