France’s Great Debate

Yves here. Wowsers, does Macron not know basic French history? The last time a ruler asked la toute France for its opinion about the problems of the day, the situation developed not necessarily to his advantage. From Wikipedia:

The Cahiers de doléances (or simply Cahiers as they were often known) were the lists of grievances drawn up by each of the three Estates in France, between March and April 1789, the year in which a revolutionary situation began. Their compilation was ordered by King Louis XVI, to give each of the Estates – the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobility) and the Third Estate, which consisted of everyone else, including the urban working class, the rural peasantry, and middle class and professional people, who were the only ones in the group likely to have their voices heard – the chance to express their hopes and grievances directly to the King. They were explicitly discussed at a special meeting of the Estates-General held on May 5, 1789. Many of these lists have survived and provide considerable information about the state of the country on the eve of the revolution. The documents recorded criticisms of government waste, indirect taxes, church taxes and corruption, and the hunting rights of the aristocracy.[1]

While the cahiers conveyed the grievances of common people, they were not meant to directly challenge the Old Regime. They were instead suggestions of reforms.[2] Still, the writing of the cahiers forced the people of France to think about the problems that France faced, and how they wanted them fixed. The political discussions that raged throughout France were a direct challenge to the current system, as they gave the people a voice, and subsequently the cahiers were used to guide the elected representatives in what to discuss at the Estates General. In essence, they added greatly to a revolutionary air of expectation of the Estates General.

By Peter G. Collier, a sociologist and educator with a PhD (University Nantes) on the emergence of urban spaces in Ireland. He has lived in France for twenty-five years. Originally published at openDemocracy

My wife and I used to live in West Brittany. Like Connemara it’s a beautiful place if you can afford it. After the effects of the 2008 crisis began to be felt, my work as an independent educator dried up. Banks and institutions put contracts on a two-year hold. After an expensive eighteen months of wait-and-see, we moved to Nantes. Five years on we consider ourselves lucky to have escaped peripheral isolation and financial suffocation[i].

Peripherality is about spatial distance from work and social services. 75% of home-work trips daily in France are by car with an average distance of 50 kms. Without secure work, family ties or welfare protection you won’t make ends meet in Peripheral France. This was why we supported the first protests of the Gilets-Jaunes.

The first Saturday protest in November mobilised 287,000. Most had never protested before. There have been eight Saturday protests. Over 5,000 were taken into custody and a thousand held in prison[ii]. Emmanuel Macron reacted by first, apologising, then freezing tax increases and bank charges while raising the minimum wage. Amazingly the Gilets-Jaunes won more concessions from the government than any trade-union or opposition party for decades. Paradoxically the more concessions Macron made the more the movement became radical. The moderate middle-class, unsettled by the level of violence, now stayed away on Saturdays. (For this alone it may be argued that Macron had played it this way.) 

The Two Frances
The current discord in France is not about immigration, but money and status. For decades successive governments have driven economic deregulation while distributing welfare to the bottom end of the social scale.

The squeezed middle paid revenue and kept their lips shut (an estimated ten million people). This evolved alongside the isolation of suburban and rural spaces and resulted in the emergence of ‘The Two Frances’. Hiding this national social fracture has been ‘Europe’ – an increasingly unsure ideal fused indubitably with global neo-liberalism. Macron’s ambition for a post-national European sovereignty and a multicultural France is considered with suspicion in the poorer regions. Hyper-centralisation in the internet age and the fusion of regions into super-regions under François Hollande resulted in the dislocation of thousands of public servants. Income inequality and status depreciation in the face of new wealth have been the results. 

Two decades ago, the philosopher Marcel Gauchet warned that the greatest threat to multicultural France was that nobody had bothered to debate its effects on democracy[iii]. Today the country is a multicultural society but without a reformed democracy. That’s why ordinary people stand at roundabouts wearing fluorescent jackets: They want to be seen and what they are talking about listened to. They refuse any form of representation, which is their great strength and weakness too.

Recently political scientist Pierre Rosanvallon described populism as ‘a political form that is, for the moment, the sole response to the problems we face in the world today’[iv]. This form uses bits from the Right and pieces from the Left to develop an incoherent narrative against the status quo. The first successful populist is Emmanuel Macron himself. His ‘start-up’ election and his positioning in ‘the centre’ was managed on a digital platform by a small core of friends from the Grande Ecoles and Tech corporates like Apple.

His party LREM is an eclectic ferment of mostly better off middle-class executives. LREM constituency politicians are rigidly ‘whipped’ by Richard Ferrand, an ‘old dog’ of the Socialist Party’s tribal politics whose fiefdom is in Brittany’s heartland. Macron lacks such roots in regional France unlike all previous Presidents. He is isolated in the Elysée palace and so needs to win back trust (his IPSOS popularity rating dropped to 20% in December but so did that of all other political actors).

Great Debate Between Citizens

Now he’s sent a letter to every citizen asking them to participate in a citizen’s debate about the future of French democracy. It is to be organized across the land until March. The letter is interesting because Macron poses no less than thirty questions to the citizen. What might a citizen do if she was to find themselves in his position? The agenda gives four themes: purchasing power, the role of the State, ecological transition and citizenship including immigration quotas. The president admits there are subjects such as taxing the super-rich he is not going to allow onto the agenda.  His described the debate in these words:

‘This debate is neither an election nor a referendum. It’s your personal expression of your own story, your opinions, your priorities that is being sought without distinction of age or social situation. It is I believe a great step forward for our Republic to consult its citizens in this way.’ 

Will the debate get consensus from the multitude of opinions to be expressed? What limits will be accepted, and what mechanism will record consensus? The dissolution of the traditional Right/Left party divide leaves the President in a rocky place. How will they take part in the national debate? Does it not undercut the agonistic role of the Assemblée Nationale?  

The Yellow-Vests are a bottom-up, eclectic social movement. The debate will differ from those of the Italian 5-Star Movement’s digital platform that was managed top-down. The debate overseen by the State is between citizens and not between citizens and the government. This is a risky and complex proposition. Visionary, if it creates a new communicative civic space for the Twitter age. A debacle, if those well-funded lobby groups succeed in monopolizing the debate for their champions.

High Stakes 

Last weekend, I watched one of France’s popular chat shows hosted by Cyril Hanuna. Hanuna speaks his audience’s roughbanlieulanguage. For nearly two hours everyone gave their opinion about the arrest of a gilet-jaune champion boxer. He’d hit a CRS member in defence, he says, of a woman who was being beaten up. Why was the boxer hero of the gyspy community in custody while the cop who’d assaulted an arrested black protester was free?

Over a hundred thousand euros were collected online for his legal fees. The debate was accompanied by phone videos showing poorly-trained police using rubber bullets indiscriminately. Once the President’s name was mentioned gross imprecations were hurled. Hanuna responded that incidents concerning the boxer and the CRS officer were not the same in the eyes of the law. But you wouldn’t think many in the studio accepted this constitutional distinction. For them the enemy was the power incarnate of the president-monarch. The security force is his lacquey. What’s dangerous for the great debate is having no red lines for this tribal cynicism and hatred for all authority.

Despite this, Macron’s Great Debate should challenge French civic society to innovate and find ways to make people’s daily worries matter. Already there have been the usual blunders that have eyes thrown to heaven. The first coordinator Chantal Jouanno prompted understandable outrage at her 14,OOO euros monthly salary. The debate will be organised at local commune level with a procedure for individuals and civic associations to speak at scheduled meetings. (For those interested you’ll get details in French here).

In one of the first surveys carried out, one in two French citizens want to participate[v]. The stakes of the debate are very high both for Emmanuel Macron and for French democracy. The rest of Europe will be watching and hopefully learning from its results.

[i]   The geographer Jacques Lévy has spent a lifetime exploring territory and mobility. These essays provide an overview of what a just or equitable territory is.

[ii]   This Wikipedia site gives stats and details.

[iii]  See this conversation between Marcel Gauchet and Régis Debray back in 2002.

[iv]  Pierre Rosanvallon interview France Culture radio January 5th 2019. See also his important book ‘Notre histoire intellectuelle et politique 1968-2018’

[v]  Opinion Way Survey, 14/01/2019.

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  1. Clive

    Population density is rarely considered in our assessments of social and economic situations.

    It is not usually apparent to those who haven’t travelled through France how sparsely populated it is overall. I’m trying to recall from my school days but I think I am correct in saying that France has a population roughly the same as the U.K. but in twice the land area.

    I’ve lived in either densely populated are very densely populated urban areas for so long that I’ve now lost pretty much all recollection of what it is like to live in a different kind of social and economic environment. It is like chalk and cheese. For example, you can probably always find some job here in the south east of England. It may well be a crappy job paying crappy money, but it is a job. If your personal finances are not absolutely terrible (you’re underwater in terms of net worth or have accommodation outgoings due to having to provide for a family unit which take a big chunk out of your earnings potential before you’ve even started to pay the other bills) you’re probably going to eek out a subsistence existence — especially if you’ve not got to contend with healthcare costs. And you’ve some vague hope of getting a better job simply because there’s an employment pool of millions of jobs within some sort of vaguely sane travelling time (let’s say up to 90 minutes on public transport which, naturally, is well developed because it’s an urban area with a big catchment to cover the costs of it plus a subsidy from government). That dynamic becomes embedded in your whole thought processes.

    But on the rare occasions I can drag myself back to my family’s roots in either the north east of England or rural Wales, which are both rural and depopulated by U.K. standards, I have to say (with safe anonymity) it is depressing beyond words, such is the contrast. I always leave thanking my lucky stars my parents managed to escape (due to the sea change in social mobility which the, a-hem, socialists and, to be grudgingly fair, the One Nation Tory ethos which it created as a reaction to it). You are stuck with profoundly limited options in pretty much every area of your life. The only people who benefit from the lack of employment opportunities and the knock-on impact to property prices are retirees, who, naturally, move there for the unspoilt scenery and the quietness.

    And I saw the same in Japan. There’s the massive urban sprawl of the great Kanto plain. And then there’s the forgotton backwaters.

    No society and no government (or, more likely, successions of governments) have been able to get away with ignoring — the phrase out of sight, out of mind seems to fit here — this more rural and probably unavoidably poorer section of society without getting some serious blowback before too long.

    1. IsabelPS

      Very interesting comment.

      I have lived all my active life in cities, small cities compared to metropolies like London, albeit capitals: Lisbon, the outskirts of Paris (that could arguably be considered a different city from Paris itself), Brussels. Since my early retirement, I have settled down in a derelict village between two small towns (about 40.000 people). The main reason why I wounded up here is that my husband (that unfortunately never got the chance to make the move), a californian of the old school, hated cities and all the general disruption that freeways had caused to the structure of the country of his youth, and saw the Portuguese countryside as a “coming home” to the Bay Area of his childhood. That, and the fact that we both strongly felt very vulnerable in the “centre” (meaning, Brussels) and felt safer in the periphery, closer to the land, where services are not streamlined (eventually because they are non existing…), back to basics, so to speak.

      Work is definitely a problem, here, and transport to work, too, as you say. But I tend to see that as “growing pains” because I do believe that our vulnerable cities are “the past” and this silly little places (depressing beyond words, as you call them) are “the future”.

      1. Lee

        Having been a SF Bay Area resident for 70 years, I too am no fan of what progress has done to it. For the time being, I am bound here by familial and economic ties. Without them I’d happily live in some rural backwater, preferably near a nature preserve, just so long as there were a pleasant little cafe where I could get a decent cup of coffee.

        1. Pym of Nantucket

          My personal experience with tiny backwaters (mine in Canada, where low population is on scale of its own having a population below half the UK and 40x the area), are that most city dwellers have essentially lost the skills required to live in low density places. I ‘m not saying this to be self congratulatory about my ruggedness, it’s simply a fact that you often have to fix your own stuff and do without a lot of cheap commercial goods. As for good coffee, you definitely have to make that yourself. After that McDonald’s coffee 25km off into your closest village is the next best…so make your own :)

          It’s clear urbanization makes sense in optimization of costs. The urban rich need to respect the important role played by the scant fraction living on the land (which in Canada comes with addressing historic blunders by Europeans dealing with the original people of this land), and how they support cities.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      I’ve seen the same, and I’ve been fascinated (in a bad way) by the processes at work. I do have to say though that having experienced run down and dying rural/small town areas in Ireland, the UK, parts of Asia, the US, and France, I’d pick a French one to live in every time. Even the most desolate of towns seems to have public facilities of a high quality and a decent fresh food market, not to mention at least one cafe with cheap local wine and decent coffee for a euro. And as for the medical care…

      One factor thats often not mentioned is the price of fuel, and not in the way the gilets jaune want it. I’ve seen the process in Ireland whereby when fuel is cheap, people will happily drive 40 or 50 miles to a supermarket in a larger town, bypassing smaller towns and villages on the way in order to get bargains (I doubt people have factored in wear and tear on their vehicles). I’ve personally little doubt that cheap fuel is a major driver for the run-down of smaller villages and towns that can’t attract a good range of shops.

      Its hard sometimes to disentangle the natural flow of wealth flows from the deliberate neoliberal run down of those areas. Throughout history, some areas prosper at others expense. To just give one small example, in Ireland the switch by many farmers from sugar beet to dairy had a very significant impact on some areas that depended on beet processing for local industrial jobs. Dairying can result in wealthier farmers, but few local processing jobs, and those wealthier farmers then drive to larger towns to shop…

      But I think the most powerful driver has been what might broadly be called the new economy. It seems to have created a whole new heirarchy of winners and losers. In France, cities like Bordeaux and Toulouse have won, others are losing out badly. Its hard to see how you can address or stop that process. Sometimes its positive – Lisbon in Portugal is booming now in a way it hasn’t for a couple of centuries. Other processes can help – a French friend told me her local bastide town was dying, but has been revived by English retirees, buying up cheap houses and setting up businesses.

      In theory, of course, digitisation was supposed to be a boon to rural areas and small towns. Hipsters would move to those places and run their lives off their laptops, spending their money in the local towns. This has happened in certain areas, but its not enough. I don’t know if there are figures available, but it seems to me that if anything this process is reversing. My employer, despite spending a fortune on a new IT system which makes it possible to work pretty much anywhere on the planet with a phone connection, has actually reversed its policy on distance working. 10 years ago I had a dozen or so colleagues working from home in remote rural areas in Ireland, happily using couriers to send work back and forth. New recruits are now explicitely told this is not an option. I’ve heard that this has become quite common.

      1. Frenchguy

        I think one thing helping rural towns keep a certain standing is the fact that most French will spend their holiday in France. A large part of the upper-middle class has a second home somewhere (often along near the coasts or in the mountains but the south-west is also popular as is the Loire) and will spend a large part of the summer there (as well as as during the holidays of May…). Lots of local shops will be able to live off those few fat months. I don’t even need to mention that they also cater to a lot of Europeans…

        I’m not sure how specific to France it is but it always seems to me that British for example speak a lot more about going on holidays abroad than we do.

        It might be not a surprise that the most rundown areas are the less attractive ones from a tourist point of view (basically the North and East, excluding Alsace, and the Massif Central). So a good thing overall but I’m not sure if it is a model that can be easily replicated.

        1. David

          Yes, this is a significant difference from the British habit, and is partly because many French people living in large cities come originally from the countryside, and still have family or a family home there. It’s quite normal from French people to spend their holidays with their parents or other relations, far from the city. This certainly keeps some rural places alive, but by the same token it can greatly distort the local economy, which becomes dependent on seasonal fluctuations, and wealthier people arriving from the cities for a few weeks.

          1. Synoia

            The beaches in England are generally cold, wet and windy. Holme, in Norfolk has one of tne best beaches on the east coast.

            I would not like to spend two weeks there.

            In addition, walking far our when the tide is out is leathal.

      2. vidimi

        i agree that france has it pretty good relative to other countries when it comes to the rural areas. sure, unemployment is high in absolute terms, but still low relative to similar countries. and those who do have a job, even if a very modest one, can do better for themselves than people elsewhere in western europe and, i suspect, anywhere in the west.

        just as an example, i was watching a popular real estate show here in yesterday. in the town of dijon, a young couple of 24 yo was looking to buy an apartment of about 75m² for around 150k€. i forgot what the guy was doing – it certainly wasn’t high-paying – but the girl was a hairdresser. you can still get a decent place to live in france for under 2000€ per m² which i suspect is not the case anywhere in england even if there are more jobs (as an aside, the type of service jobs available in small towns such as baker or hairdresser in england are much lower paying than they are in france). dijon isn’t even anywhere near the cheapest place in france. it is quite close to paris and relatively well off. if you go somewhere in the massif central such as limoges or clermont ferrand, you will likely find real estate for under 1000€ per m².

    3. upstater

      The US “solves” the problem of the isolation and clinical depression of “flyover” county by having readily available supplies prescription opioids, heroin, meth and booze.

    4. Oregoncharles

      I was once told, by a British man living and working in France, that he lived there because there were actually wildflowers, which there were not in Britain because the population density is so much higher. (Although there are peripheral areas in Britain, too, like Scotland.) One consequence, I believe is that France can actually feed itself, while Britain cannot.

      Recently, at least, there is a long history of rural revolutions overthrowing urban governments. That isn’t only because that’s where the food comes from; the lines of communication have to go through the country. Cutting them is a strategy that goes back at least to Lawrence of Arabia, and David’s description of Gilet Jaune strategy matches exactly. I got a strong impression of a noose closing on Macron. Refusing to discuss taxes on the richest will only close it tighter. It’s odd that he would be so flagrant about it; apparently his leash is very short.

    5. Ignacio

      I find the debate proposition interesting to say the least. Here in Spain many will feel envious that such a debate is seriously taken in France whereas in Spain …

      Although you don’t find many gilets jaunes in Spain (to my knowledge there has been only one protest in Oviedo mirroring those in France) I bet that their political positions are shared by many here. So, the debate will be followed with interest.

  2. flora

    The debate sounds better and potentially more useful than the listening tours US politicians and business titans use for PR purposes.
    Then there is this from the post:
    [President Macron] admits there are subjects such as taxing the super-rich he is not going to allow onto the agenda.
    It sounds like Macron has already decided what he will decide. Even so, people talking with each other could generate good political dialogue locally and create a force for moving forward.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    Sometimes these proposals can backfire in a positive way. Under great pressure, a new government in Ireland established a ‘constitutional convention’, which later became the Citizens Assembly, essentially a sort of grand jury for ‘big’ questions. It was a blatent buck-passing tactic by the then Prime Minister, and nobody expected much of it. But to everyones surprise, it has been an outstanding success so far, leading to modernisation of the Constitution (gay marriage, abortion), and it is now addressing climate change, and is likely to recommend radical action, far more radical than the politicians want.

    Having said that, the French proposal seems designed to dissapate protest, not lead to meaningful reform. But these things have a habit of coming up with unexpected results.

    1. Tony Wright

      I think the idea of Macron is along the lines of ” If I let ‘les citoyens’ get it off their chests they might just calm down a bit and let us carry on with what we want to do.” Did not a British PM called Cameron do something similar by calling for a referendum on the UK belonging to the EU? That seems to be going well……..
      I wonder what Macron will do if those restless ‘citoyens’ attempt to reprise French history and come up with an opinion of “Off With His Head”?
      As the inimitable Sir Humphrey would have said:
      “That is a very brave decision, Minister…”

      1. Jeff W

        “get it off their chests”

        I’d say Macron is seeking to elicit one behavior (participating in the Great Debate) that might be seen as an alternative to, and, perhaps, as incompatible with another (participating in more gilets jaunes protests). It’s “channeling” the behavior of discontent into that which Macron hopes he can manage and dampen.

        Of course, as Yves alludes to in her introduction regarding Louis XVI and the Third Estate (and you do with regard to David Cameron and the EU Referendum), these things may not turn out precisely the way the leaders who set them in motion expect.

  4. David

    The tradition of the cahiers de doléances actually goes back to the Middle Ages. It was a traditional way for the ordinary people to bring their grievances to the attention of the King. Under the system of absolutism, the King was, literally, a divine figure with the right to declare war and make and enforce laws: he was literally judge, jury and executioner. Thus, the society of the time was in theory perfect, because it had been instituted by God. What the cahiers did was to alert the King, in theory, that something had gone wrong with the divinely ordered system, and needed to be put right, by restoring the situation to its previous perfection. Thus, the contents of the cahiers, especially before the 18th Century, were essentially conservative: the common people bringing to the King’s attention the fact that his servants were not operating the system correctly, and that the rules and procedures needed to be properly enforced. There was no question of reforms, because the system, being divinely ordained, was perfect. (Things got out of control in 1789, though). The cahiers were not discussion between citizens (there were no citizens) but appeals from a subject to their ruler.
    You can see where this is going. Macron has made it clear that nothing important is going to change, and that the government is not necessarily going to take any notice of the results of the debate. In effect, the stubborn neoliberalism that Macron has displayed, and that he refuses to alter, is the modern equivalent of absolutism and the divine right of Kings. Neoliberalism is the divinely ordained solution, and the great debate is just how it is going to be implemented.
    The President in France has rightly been described as an “elected monarch.” The iconography is a direct descendant of that of Louis XIV: the military operations centre under the Elysées from which an order would be given to launch nuclear missiles is code-named “Jupiter.” In the 60s and afterwards, the President was presented as having the “nuclear fire” or the “fire from heaven” at his command.
    This worked well for De Gaulle, who was a genuine national hero, and who was often called Le Grand Charles (Charles the Great, therefore Charlemagne). It worked OK for Pompidou and tolerably well for Giscard, and for Chirac in the early days. But it broke down with Sarkozy (nasty little ambitious provincial lawyer) and Hollande (bureaucrat photographed travelling by scooter to see his mistress). Macron is consciously trying to revive the Presidency as a kind of royal office, and ruffling a lot of feathers in the process. Indeed, as someone with an arrogance management problem, he has sometimes appeared ridiculous in his attempt to clothe himself in the symbolism of the monarchy. The great debate is his Louis XIV act: I am your ruler, and my policies are perfect, but you little people should tell me your problems and I will see if I can help.

  5. The Rev Kev

    Oh man, I have seen this movie before. It does not end well. That is why Australia is still part of a Monarchy and not a Republic. In the past the French bureaucracy was a work of art that would have met the admiring glance of Sir Humphrey Appleby. This Great Debate will be the place where the French revolt goes to die unless they keep up and even intensify their protests. If asked about the actual debate, the French establishment will say something like ‘If we are pressed for a straight question, we shall say that, as far as we can see, looking at it by and large, taking one thing with another, in terms of the average of departments, then in the last analysis, it is probably true to say that, at the end of the day, you will find, in general terms that, not to put too fine a point on it, there really was not very much in it, one way or the other. That is why it is imperative that the issue of a Great Debate is pushed through, acted upon, immediately, without any further delay, leaving aside procedural matters on the validity of the question about any precedence here.
    As to what reforms will be eventually decided on and acted upon as a result of these Great Debates – after endless back-and-forths, most certainly the answer will be ‘In due course. In the fullness of time. At the appropriate juncture. When the moment is ripe. When the requisite procedures have been completed. Nothing precipitate, you understand.’

    1. Susan the Other

      exactly what I thought… Macron can collect all his yes-no answers, run them through data analysis and then go do a Ted Talk.

  6. vidimi

    i watched part of the great debate macron had with french mayors a few days ago on mute at my local sushi joint. he was responding to their questions reading off a printed paper so my take was that all the questions were screened ahead. i don’t know how the average french citizen perceives this presidential outreach, but to me, it just seems like more of the obama better messaging tactic.

    an update on the post situation: since the beginning of the month, the local post office was shut down and the services were usurped by the carrefour supermarket. however, the postmen still deliver mail, including pakages. my wife and i have ordered two books since then and, this week, both have arrived in our mailbox removed from their packaging and damaged. seems that some disgruntled post employee is using the infamous french technique of resistance known as sabotage to express his discontent.

    while my solidarity is with the employees, i also want my copy of Michael Hudson’s new book to be in good shape, so i have transferred the replacement cost to amazon.

    1. cnchal

      > so i have transferred the replacement cost to amazon.

      Hmmm. Are you sure about that?

      Amazon eats little people like Michael Hudson for a light snack, so I suspect that bit of sabotage will come right out of Michael’s pocket and to boot, get a black mark on his record for shipping damaged goods. I know, unjust, but what are you going to do? Arguing with an algorithm is pointless.

      1. vidimi

        no, i don’t think so, because in the questionnaire for why you are replacing it they had several options, including the goods came damaged but the packaging was intact and the goods came damaged and the packaging was damaged. i made sure to select the second option so that the expediter wouldn’t get the blame.

  7. el_tel

    Interesting piece. It immediately made me think of a tool that is sometimes used in healthcare in countries like the UK, where everyone is nominally entitled to care but where the “cost per quality adjusted life year saved” (national single price rule essentially) is challenged – the archetypal example being “should people whose health problems are due to their own actions – like smoking – be pushed to the back of the queue?”.

    The tool is the Citizens’ Jury. Around 30 people, chosen to form a representative cross-section of the country, deliberate on a key issue. “Experts” give talks and can be cross-examined. Then the CJ’s views are taken again, and some consensus (ideally) emerges. As an aside, it is interesting that CJs have frequently led “extreme” people who want to punish smokers/fat people etc to moderate their views, once they learn the socioeconomics of the situation.

    CJs have not taken off in the way many expected – I suspect the more general distrust of authorities and scientists have led many people to decide “what’s the point?” On the one hand the scientist in me despairs, but on the other hand, when I see the “unspoken paradigm” which underpins the entire presentations of my contemporary “experts”, it makes me fully understand why the general public thinks like this…..this also ties in a lot with the BREXIT stuff and the Guardian’s fatuous cheer-leading of some form of Citizens’ Assemblies.

    If you don’t ask the right questions, how on earth will people give informed answers?

  8. David

    Macron has broken one of the cardinal rules of politics: never ask a question unless you are fairly sure you know in advance what the answer or answers may be. Macron’s arrogance (and to be fair that of his clique also) is such that I think he believes that he can “educate” (yes, that’s the word) the French people into thinking that they are wrong and he is right. Neither he nor his government is exactly crippled by modesty – indeed one of his Ministers got into trouble recently for saying the government was “too intelligent” for the people.
    Macron typifies for many French people the kind of bland, jargon-ridden, technocratic rule which has become the norm in the last generation. The “Macronie” as his government is called has a distinctive way of speaking and writing which has been much analysed. It is inspired by management speak and borrows a lot from English, and it’s often not clear what it’s supposed to mean, or indeed if it means anything at all. Someone has obviously told Macron this, because now he’s starting to cultivate a kind of false-demotic, populist way of speaking, which is just as false, as well as being ugly to listen to.
    You can get some idea of the hidden agendas from Macron’s questions. For example, he talked about abolishing levels of local government and cutting the number of local authorities – a hardy perennial of French politics. But his idea was to abolish some small local authorities and attach them to large cities instead. Allegedly, this is in the interests of management efficiency and cost-saving. Actually, it would reinforce the existing tendency for wealth and power to gravitate to the big cities, leaving the hinterland to die, except as a source of cheap labour. This, of course, is exactly what the gilets jaunes are protesting against. And their support is still high: they’ll be out again tomorrow.

    1. Off The Street

      Dossiers de doléances, those are what Macron should next anticipate. His willful ignorance of the past and of how the Fourth Estate now has legions at their keyboards (beyond Le Monde and conventional outlets, and now including NC et al) will prove to accelerate his downfall.

  9. MisterMr

    “The current discord in France is not about immigration, but money and status. For decades successive governments have driven economic deregulation while distributing welfare to the bottom end of the social scale.

    The squeezed middle paid revenue and kept their lips shut (an estimated ten million people). This evolved alongside the isolation of suburban and rural spaces and resulted in the emergence of ‘The Two Frances’.”

    Isn’t it three Frances? Why two?
    How is the “middle” defined? In what sense is it squeezed (as opposed as emptied)? If you define the middle as, for example, people between the 25% and the 75% percentile then this will always represent 50% of the population; if inequality increases then automatically they will get closer to the bottom but farther from the top because income and wealth distribuition is pear shaped, so there is no point of speaking of a “squeezed middle” unless you want to blame it on the poor.

    “Two decades ago, the philosopher Marcel Gauchet warned that the greatest threat to multicultural France was that nobody had bothered to debate its effects on democracy[iii]. Today the country is a multicultural society but without a reformed democracy.”

    Wait two lines above we have “is not about immigration”, then we see that multiculturality is a treat to democracy?

    “That’s why ordinary people stand at roundabouts wearing fluorescent jackets: They want to be seen and what they are talking about listened to.”

    So who are these ordinary people? Are they non-multicultural frenchmen? Are they the (non-defined) middle? Do the poor and the multicultural count in it too? What makes these people more ordinary than the others?
    Shades of the “true” americans.


    1. David

      Reasonable questions, given that the article is a series of jottings rather than an argument.
      About 10-15% of the French population is reasonably well off, and lives very largely in or near the big cities. Often professionals or managers, often owning shares, sometimes living in inherited property, they manage to pay less than their fair share of tax, and increasingly less so in recent years. About the same percentage of the population lives in poverty, either unemployed or subsisting on occasional temporary and casual work, and they are disproportionately clustered in the suburbs of the large cities. They often don’t pay tax at all, either because they don’t have enough income, or because the only work they can get is in the black economy. They do benefit from family and other allowances that are probably the best in Europe. In between is everybody else, usually people earning just enough to get by, or people living off pensions. These are people who, as they say in interviews, have trouble making ends meet every month. They earn too much to claim social benefits, but not enough to live on, and the cost of living is inexorably rising. They also pay a disproportionate amount of tax, especially compared to those with more money. The gilets jaunes come from this larger France, neglected and largely invisible because it is neither lionised by the celebrity-addled media, nor treated as a social and economic problem to be studied by high-level panels.
      I don’t think raising the issue of multiculturalism is helpful here, especially as multiculturalism has a rather specialised meaning in France: the importation of Anglo-Saxon practices of separate cultures for different groups, which isn’t part of traditional French thinking. It’s true that the GJ movement is not about immigration. It’s also true that where multiculturalism really exists is in the big cities, and among the elites. The worlds of politics, entertainment, sport etc. reflect the population balances in and around the big cities, and French people of Maghrebian or African origin are much more prominent in all those worlds than in most of France. Likewise, urban elites are generally consumed with cultural questions , since they don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. If you are a nurse, or a care worker, or a pensioner struggling to make ends meet, then a lot of what is debated in the media (“should Muslim parents be allowed to withdraw their children from biology lessons if they don’t accept the theory of evolution?”) is simply meaningless. One thing that the GJ have accomplished is make the media finally devote time to the worries of ordinary people, whatever culture they come from.

      1. MisterMr

        Thanks for you answer.
        I’m not convinced by it though:
        1) the article said that the ordinary Frenchman (that you say are roughly the middle 70% of income distribution) pay for the poor (the lower 15%). Is this true? I doubt it. And do they want to increase taxes on the top 15% or screw more the bottom 15%? This makes a lot of difference.
        2) so 70% of Frenchman have difficulty to make ends meet, plus 15% of poor? It seems to me it’s quite an exaggeration.

        So I still don’t know who the JG are and what do they want. Maybe they don’t know either.

      2. Craig H.

        > It’s true that the GJ movement is not about immigration.

        In this week’s Economist they were totally dismissive of the GJ’s in an article and in the Charlemagne column. The talking points they are pushing are: GJ is anti-immigration, GJ is anti-EU, GJ is anti-gay marriage. Also they had numbers on % taxes paid by the top, GINI, benefits for the poor, &c. (France is top or tied for the top most progressive country on earth by any measure) and they implied the GJ’s have no justified complaints and were too stupid to know how good they have it.

        I was gobsmacked. If anybody knows of an English translation on the new survey results I would be keen to see it.

      3. SH

        Always appreciate your comments, David, but would note that online readability is enhanced by shorter 3-6 line paragraphs with line breaks between to avoid the wall of text problem.

        Thank you.

  10. John Beech

    Having spent a significant portion of my life living in Latin America (Panama City) and the balance generally on the outskirts of modest American cities (Birmingham and Orlando), I have seen the similarities of poor people in the hinterlands vs. greater wealth in the cities in both parts of the world. Having traveled to Europe and Asia I’ve seen pretty much the same thing.

    Take for example, the price people pay for a lack of private transport. In Latin America bus service is superb because of the comparative ease with which anybody can buy a bus and put it to work. Yes, they have a token system alá NY City cabs, but it has a Latino flavor meaning it can be circumvented and the costs are not exorbitant. As a consequence, not having a car isn’t an utter disaster in terms of getting to and from work within the city.

    Meanwhile, in the US, the public transport (obviously buses since in my example cities we’re far from the hustle and bustle of the NE corridor characterized by the Acela corridor), the system is operated by government. The buses government favors are HUGE, generally empty, and the schedules are sketchy (I’ve spoken to people whilst riding my bike and learned a 45 minute to hour wait isn’t uncommon and the facilities for waiting are spartan and almost never covered (except downtown). The point?

    Getting to and from a distant job in the countryside of America is a big deal. Sounds a lot like France. And the price of fuel impacts it. Again, like France. Added to which, of course, is part and parcel with being in a rural area means jobs are fewer, not paid as well, and while the cost of living is lower, it’s not enough to make you better off financially.

    Then there is the ever present concern regarding health care. However, while it’s a central issue in America, in Panama there is socialized medicine alongside for profit health care and if you’re too poor to pay, there are the government run hospitals. No, not as good but better than nothing and considering the generally lower economic basis by which folks in Latin America live compared to the USA, pretty good. Meanwhile, in the USA, the young would rather have the extra money employers offer in lieu of health care plans added to their paycheck. I did when I was young and while it was a worthwhile gamble for me because I am healthy, now that I am more economically mature I see the downsides to this even being allowed.

    However, also bad about living in the hinterlands (both places, Latin America and the USA) is the lack of communication. By this I mean decent internet service. This results in a permanent underclass information-wise. Meanwhile, tech is supposed to come to the rescue because 5G (the real stuff not the 5Ge being promoted by AT&T) will help deliver greater speeds. But realistically it’s 5 years out and as usual it won’t extend very well into rural areas.

    Sometimes I see the advantages of how China just pushes things through and builds, builds, builds. Sometimes I wish we had the backbone to do something similar. For example, they have been widening and improving highway 17-92 locally for about two years and will still be doing it two years hence. In China it would have been over and done with in about a week (I kid you not).

    France (yes, I’m getting back to it) is interesting. It’s my opinion Macron is about to discover he’s playing with fire. Trump (who I support) and Pelosi/Schumer (who also have their roles to play) may come to learn the same thing. Me? I’m a long time Republican voter who will support Bernie Sanders if he gets a chance. I think that old guy gets it. Not 100% but better than anybody else. He can maybe keep us from following the path of France – and sometimes I believe it’s coming to us as well because nobody is happy (and sadly, just for ratings, the media keeps whipping up hate of the President daily).

    Anyway, I am with the yellow vest folks in spirit despite being middle class (self employed and paying quarterly taxes) because I have eyes and can see how the deck is stacked against the little guy. We raise expectations with television programs showing the good life, we hook them on debt, price them out of the game, educate them ‘just’ enough to be somewhat productive, and indoctrinate the crap out of them with sound bites. Small wonder we’re where we are. Sigh.

    1. c_heale


      I feel the same way having grown up in rural areas and lived in cities. I’m now in a rural area on the periphery of Seoul.

      I feel that now the country people are protesting it means a big change is coming. These people are in general much more conservative (and resigned to a hard life) than the city people, and if they are protesting then change will happen. In general city people are more likely to protest, so for the country people to join them, it means that things are really insufferable.

      1. vidimi

        that was my impression when it all started, that this was at heart a conservative rebellion, and that therefore was more likely to be taken seriously.

  11. Palinurus

    I remember, it was about 1975 in Ireland and I argued with my father over the continuing state subsidies to the sugar companies which never made a profit. I thought I had made a good economic argument. Then he said to me; “They were never set up to make money. They were set up to provide employment in rural underdeveloped areas.” Looking back that was the beginning of the country being run as a business rather than a society. Most of the Post Offices are now disappearing, they too are not making enough profit. The same argument can be used for most of the services in rural areas
    Traffic in Dublin is now dreadful but just a short drive out past Naas and most of it has disappeared. Yet Dublin continues to grow, “Ill fares the land to hastening ills a prey/ Where wealth accumulates and men decay.” Oliver Goldsmith

  12. Darthbobber

    Another “guided conversation. ” In which the originator/moderator (and author or co-author of the things being complained of) sets the boundaries, frames the questions, and interprets the input in a manner of his own choosing.

    A conversation that proposes, at birth, to exclude certain questions altogether and frame the remainder in the most innocuous way possible.

    I’ve attended a variety of listening/ input gatherings in various organizations, usually purporting to seek input from the broader membership on proposals from whoever inhabits the central leadership and administrative positions.

    Meetings usually facilitated by supporters of the proposals and attended by reps of the leadership, who travel to the various assemblies at the expense of those
    Needing to be sold on the idea.

    Usually these are conducted in such a way that the actual making of motions, or the taking of votes that would express a collective view by an assembly is out of the question.

    So individual expressions are collected, weighed or disregarded by utterly opaque standards, if any, and at some point down the road a vanilla communique issues forth from the center, summarizing those concerns they chose to acknowledge and assuring all involved that they have taken all of these deeply to heart, and that all of these concerns will of course be incorporated in unspecified fashion into the end product, which almost invariably ends up being almost identical to the pre-great conversation original.

  13. notabanker

    Recently political scientist Pierre Rosanvallon described populism as ‘a political form that is, for the moment, the sole response to the problems we face in the world today’[iv]. This form uses bits from the Right and pieces from the Left to develop an incoherent narrative against the status quo.

    Aka Twitter. All noise, no substance with a general trend that most people are fed up.

    I’ve been really uncomfortable with the cult of personality surrounding AOC, and I think this is why. It’s just one voice. It’s a refreshing voice and strikes many of the right chords. But alone it is extremely vulnerable to forces that no one person should be reasonably expected to overcome.

  14. Summer

    He says the debate will be ” a debacle, if those well-funded lobby groups succeed in monopolizing the debate for their champions.”

    This is after informing us that “the president admits there are subjects such as taxing the super-rich he is not going to allow onto the agenda…”

    And that is not for the benefit of well-funded lobby groups?

    It’s biding time. Nothing more.

    1. Susan the Other

      One thing neoliberal capitalists do that we can count on is they always protect themselves and make the 90% do all the changing and sacrifice. Instead of doing the logical thing which is organize a vision of the future and implement it before you cut people off (expensive gasoline because must save the environment before we get society restructured, etc.). France is about the size of Montana with 80 million people. Most of them well educated and competent. Why is there a problem securing their future before destroying their current way of life? My guess is that there is a very clear answer to this question but Macron’s little questionnaire will manage to obfuscate it completely. And one of the tragic ironies here is that the environment will suffer, not the rich nor the revolutionaries.

      1. Summer

        The waiting game is the same the world over.
        The way I see it, you have generations coming up that are actually looking to corporations for moral guidance. It’s more than just the consumerism with all its effects on the previous generation.

        You wait and talk, talk, talk…until there are only people left who actually expect moral guidance from corporations.

  15. JTMcPhee

    Well, at least there’s a tiny, artfully crafted motion toward asking the mopes that question I am so fond of, that is, “what kind of political economy do they/we want to live in?” With, as noted, the chance that the manipulators-in-chief might get a response structurally different than what they intend. “Henri, plus de sauce Bernasienne, s’il vous plait?”

    The related question, “What are we willing, and what can we actually do, to do to achieve that political economy?” is implicitly there, the Macronies and the rest of the “Apres nous” oligarchy hoping it stays silent and invisible.

  16. chuck roast

    As I recall, Occupy spent an enormous amount of time talking and exchanging ideas. It appeared to devolve into a gab-fest. Eventually, they exhausted themselves and it seemed pointless. And when the cops finally brought the hammer down the entire movement ended in both a bang and a whimper.

  17. Summer

    “one of the first surveys carried out, one in two French citizens want to participate[v]. The stakes of the debate are very high both for Emmanuel Macron and for French democracy. The rest of Europe will be watching and hopefully learning from its results…”

    Hopefully learning what?

  18. Mael Colium

    When will the elites learn?

    As we hurtle towards another global conflict ably assisted by climate collapse, will the ordinary people end up paying the blood price of the neoliberal experiment which has completely and utterly consumed any notion of the original fair deal postulated by Rooseveldt post WW2 and broadly adopted by the West? The parallels are extraordinary and it continues to confound me that the polity are yet to awake from their torpor. Probably the price for the polity of losing their place at the trough is too high in their tiny brained short term thinking and like the ruling class of pre WW1 and 2, the new elite (which includes a mix of old and new money) are too stupid to see the cracks that are becoming chasms. The people still remember those world war days from grandparents, so I wonder if the Gen X and Y’s will be as keen to give up their lives to hold together the wealth and priviledge of the haves while they (the have nots) pay the ultimate price? Europe is falling apart due largely to the self imposed straight jacket they call the Eurozone and while things are somewhat different on this side of the globe, the effects of neoliberalism are keenly felt in a similar vein. Folks fought for King and country last time, but I can’t see anyone fronting to fight for the likes of Macron or Trump et al.

    Oh, I’ll throw this in for discussion stimulation. The debacle called Brexit is being poorly handled by the polity and their cronies, but in reality, the movement of Brexit IMHO has similar roots to the yellow jersey marches, so Macron is really playing with fire. I have little regard for the man. Anyone wedded to someone old enough to be their parent has issues beyond the help of professionals, which kind of underlines the stupidity that abounds when the neolib lapdogs choose their candidates. Over and out!.

  19. Ignim Brites

    Where does the “money” central banks
    create/counterfeit go first? To the rural areas? Or to the cities?

  20. Laure

    There is 4 différents themes
    And one of them is climate change, how we gonna make it ?
    I’m French
    I want be part of this institutional debate
    I’ve send proposals on the digital platform and tomorrow night debate in my little town with mayors and deputy….
    Not gilet jaune, but I’m a citizen and we should find a way out of this crisis and a way for the energetic transition.
    Would you like to have a look ?
    Go on my friends

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