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Can Macron’s ‘grand debates’ address yellow vest concerns in France?

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Valence, in the nation’s southeast, on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, as part of the “grand debate” effort.
French President Emmanuel Macron visited Valence, in the nation’s southeast, on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, as part of the “grand debate” effort. (Emmanuel Foudrot/Reuters)

VALENCE, France — Mayors from southeastern France gathered Thursday at the regional prefecture here for an aperitif, a hearty country lunch and a chance to air their grievances to President Emmanuel Macron.

It was the third “grand debate” attended by Macron, part of a national conversation he has launched in response to the yellow-vest protests, known in French as gilets jaune.

The stated hope is that two months of these exchanges will generate policy ideas that might alleviate the anger that has erupted in French cities and towns, especially on the question of rising inequality.

But Macron is also trying to connect with people while fending off criticism that he is aloof and elitist. He is making his way through what is known as “peripheral France,” communities far from Paris that have seen a sharp decline in local industry and can be difficult to reach by train, the sort of places where the yellow-vest movement originated.

“I find the idea new and interesting,” said Bernard Buis, 56, a senator from the Drome region, of which Valence is the capital, and a member of Macron’s party. “We’re giving the chance to the French to explain their concerns and anxieties about daily life. It’s relatively easy to do something like this within the confines of a local community, but in a national territory as large as France, that’s a much bigger undertaking.”

The debates appear to have offered Macron some temporary relief from approval ratings that had been in free fall. For the first time in months, his numbers made a slight comeback last week, and polls showed that one in three French citizens intended to participate in the town halls.

But some of the elected representatives invited to attend the nearly four-hour session in Valence on Thursday used it to repeat what has become the standard refrain among Macron’s critics: that he is monarchical, arrogant and uninterested in the difficulties that confront ordinary people.

Macron notably faced off against Laurent Wauquiez, one of his principal political adversaries and leader of France’s mainstream conservative party, Les Republicains. The two had a private meeting before the debate began, during which Wauquiez said he questioned how much could come from invitation-only sessions.

Macron also met with invited mayors in the previous two debates, the first in the northern town of Grand Bourgtheroulde and the second in the town of Souillac.

“The session today, it’s very good. It’s staged very well. There are filtered invitations, organized speeches, a calibrated response. But that’s not a debate . . .” Wauquiez told reporters afterward. “These are trips into the bubble.”

“The danger . . . is that we leave with propositions too far from removed from what the French are facing,” he said. “The president of the Republic should change. He should go into the territories and exchange directly with the French, without filter.”

Macron was defensive in his collective response at the end of the exchange. “If there is one thing that characterizes this country, it’s that we put everything on the head of the president of the Republic,” he said.

“There may be disgruntled groups,” he said. “But to consider that they are right because they are dissatisfied is to make little consideration for others. My role is to be the president of all.”

Emmanuelle Anthoine, a center-right parliamentary deputy from the Drone region, said afterward that her expectations remained low.

“I think it’s interesting, but for me this is all unlikely to advance anything big,” she said.

Cécile Gallien , the mayor of Vorey and vice president of the Association of French Mayors, as well as another member of Macron’s party, endorsed the idea of meeting with local officials. “It’s completely logical,” she said, noting that she regularly consulted the “cahier des doléances,” the book kept in French town halls in which locals can write down their complaints.

“We’re the ones in close touch with [the people],” she said.

Jean Pisani-Ferry, a political scientist who wrote Macron’s 2017 election platform, said the anger in France is fundamentally linked to the economic transformation of the country in the past 30 years. The yellow vests — whose name comes from the high-visibility jackets French motorists are required to keep in their cars — have mobilized in response to a larger economic and cultural transformation that began long before Macron’s presidency and that shows no signs of abating, he said.

“We have in peripheral France a social reality that resembles that of America: town centers where shops are closed, chain stores on the outskirts, and workers left to drive for miles to their jobs,” he said. “What we see at the roundabouts with the gilets jaunes is the effect of this shift, people who seek to reclaim a lost community.”

With the grand debates, Macron has sought to recreate — or simulate, depending on whom you ask — a sense of community. After the session with local mayors, he met with local seniors, occasionally answering questions posed to him on Facebook.

Macron then made a surprise appearance at a separate debate on the outskirts of Valence on Thursday evening — where some in the audience wore yellow vests.

“Pardon me for turning up uninvited,” he said.

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