PARIS — What stood out most was the talking — hours and hours of talking, driven by elderly people with microphones and young people with smirks. They were fed up, and they had come to pillory the dapper president they saw as the embodiment of everything wrong with the world.
This was Emmanuel Macron’s “grand débat,” a two-month listening tour of more than 10,000 sessions held across France that officially ended on Friday, a lofty plan designed to restore civic trust in his embattled presidency and the French Republic itself. It may not have failed.
At the beginning, skeptics scoffed at the notion of a “national conversation” as hollow and meaningless. But the debate sessions drew sizable crowds, and most people seemed to take the events seriously, even if some felt like lectures and others resembled auditions for high school plays. Regional officials dutifully recorded more than 1.5 million individual contributions in more than 16,000 booklets of complaints.
The question now is what the Elysee Palace will do with this sprawling mass of data, the written record of hours of grievances publicly declared. The government, with the help of a polling institute, will analyze the data within two weeks, sorting it thematically. It will then be sent to a board of five government-
appointed examiners, and results are expected in mid-April.
Any policy proposals that might emerge from this analysis remain unclear. Last month, Macron floated the idea of a referendum to be held in May, timed to coincide with European Parliament elections, but no plans have been confirmed.
For some observers and participants, the debate sessions were a success regardless of what policy proposals emerge, because they represented a unique civic experiment — an attempt to “democratize democracy,” in the words of the political scientist Pascal Perrineau, one of five government-appointed monitors charged with ensuring the independence of the sessions.
“You have brought together in these last few months people who have never participated in public life before,” Perrineau said Thursday in Paris, addressing a crowd at one of the last events in the series.
“It does seem it has responded to the demand from a fraction of society that felt they didn’t have a voice, that they couldn’t express themselves through the ordinary channels, voting or political parties that are completely dysfunctional,” said Jean Pisani-Ferry, an economist who wrote much of Macron’s campaign platform in the 2017 election.
“In policy terms, it’s almost bound to disappoint,” he added. “There’s not going to be a major appearance of revenues to be distributed.”
Pisani-Ferry was hesitant to call the listening tour a success beyond helping to repair Macron’s badly damaged image. “It has definitely been successful as a political initiative,” he said. “The guy with rolled-up sleeves, engaging with the people — that’s very much associated with the U.S. I wouldn’t say it worked, but it has at least delivered an ability to change style from someone very distant to someone more engaged.”
Macron’s approval ratings, once dismal, have begun to rise, with the most recent poll placing him at 31 percent.
And the number of people joining the “yellow vest” protests has begun to fall.
The protests that began in mid-November with outrage over a planned fuel-tax hike — which Macron canceled in December — evolved into a personal rebuke of the youngest leader France has known since Napoleon Bonaparte.
The yellow vests, who drew their name from the high-visibility jackets French drivers are required to keep in cars for emergencies, frequently say Macron has nothing but scorn for them. Although he was born in the provinces, in Amiens, he is seen as the epitome of a well-educated Parisian elite, a former investment banker who breezed his way into the Elysee.
But the protests have lost considerable momentum, although their violence has not disappeared. At the beginning, more than 282,000 yellow vests took to the streets in mid-November. On Saturday, only 32,200 protesters marched throughout the country.
The movement has also failed to organize politically, despite its earlier aspirations to field candidates for the European elections in May.
“People want to continue, but you don’t yet know in what form,” Pisani-Ferry said, noting that the ritual of the weekly protests has created a sense of community — something that’s especially welcome in rural areas where France’s increasingly globalized economy has smothered local industry.
Certainly the anger of the yellow vests has not evaporated. In Paris on Saturday, some 8,000 demonstrators assembled in a strikingly violent protest that saw shop windows destroyed, restaurants ransacked and a bank set ablaze, according to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. In comparison, as many as 100,000 people took part in a different Paris march for action on climate change, according to organizers.
The anger of the yellow vests was also visible during the final stages of the great debate tour.
“This is a masquerade,” said Sullivan Evrand, 24, who had come from Caen, roughly 150 miles to the northwest, for the event.
His principal complaint was that Macron’s party was using the debate sessions as a means of campaigning for the European elections — the first time Macron’s party will compete, and in a year when the contest has been identified as an existential battle between social democrats such as Macron and right-wing populists such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
“It’s always the same debate,” he said. “This is just a European campaign.”
Thursday’s event was held in the gilded lecture hall of a Paris arts school. Evrand said that he attended a Caen branch of the same institution and that the difference was striking. “We have only one microwave, and we have no more toilet paper.”
Despite the boost in his approval ratings during the tour, Macron’s image suffered another blow on Saturday. As violence erupted in Paris once again, the president was skiing in the Alps. He quickly returned.