Our view on… the output of the Great National Debate
It took 50 minutes to Emmanuel Macron to present the conclusions he drew from the Great National Debate to 320 journalists gathered in the Elysée Palace and to the French.
He announced a series of measures in a wide array of fields, from institutions to the middle classes and single-parent families’ purchasing power, taxation, public services (notably for the ederly), education, dependence, etc. Emmanuel Macron ended his speech on the necessary refoundation of Europe. He set up a very substantial work program for the government, the legislator, the social partners, the associations, etc. and even for the French themselves who were invited to enter a Council of Citizens.
It is obvious that these announcements will not bring “the Yellow Jackets” (“Gilets jaunes”), still mobilized, to give up their Saturdays actions. And it is still too early to know if they will significantly reduce the support to the movement, still backed by a sizeable part of the public opinion. On the other hand, we can draw from the diversity and the very nature of these measures a first assessment of an unprecedented process of dialogue and communication under the Republic.
As announced by the President of the Republic on December 10, together with ten billion various social measures, the Great National Debate had at first the undeniable merit of offering an alternative to demonstrations, by giving everyone the possibility of expressing their views, of opening perspectives of evolution in the long term and thus of reducing the tension. It has provided the government a way to regain control of the agenda and to drive the public debate.
It then allowed the President, whose image and credibility had sharply deteriorated since July, to restore them at least in part. Through an intense personal commitment (nearly 70 hours of meetings, in all regions of France, with various audiences, elected officials especially but also young and old people, women, disabled people, business leaders, etc.). And through displaying his undeniable qualities as a debater, as of his ability to answer the most varied questions, from the broadest to the most precise ones, let alone his physical resistance. Emmanuel Macron has more than ever appeared “out of the ordinary”, as he has done since his entry into politics. One should notice that the Great Debate finally brought back to the core of the collective life the local elected officials, especially the mayors. The latter appeared more than ever as the inevitable intermediaries of our collective life.
But at the same time, the Great Debate has had at least three side effects.
In the first place, it greatly reduced the scope of the 10 billion euros “granted“ on December 10 in a few minutes. As these measures were only the prelude to a large debate open to all the French, the idea that there would be others quickly raised. Of course. In the same way, as on December 10th everyone had already forgotten the concessions by the government of December 1st, on the carbon tax and its side measures, a large part of the discussions polarized, from the Great National Debate inauguration on January 15th to what should be financially done to reset the social consensus. Without any precise encryption of the measures announced by Emmanuel Macron, already available, it seems clear that the 10 billion mark will be widely crossed.
Moreover, though it eased tensions and contributed to the gradual weakening of the movement of “the Yellow Jackets” – the amount of Saturday demonstrators (censused by the Ministry of the Interior) went down from more than 300 000 on November 17 for the act 1 to about 30 000 for Act 23 – Emmanuel Macron inadvertently fueled the protests. The rallies, more or less violent under the weeks and the cities, were responses to the government, expressing a refusal of the mere principle of the Great Debate and putting pressure on its conclusions, pushing the Government to “let concede even more”.
But overall, the very way in which the Great Debate was conducted, through broad questions and vague proposals, did not allow a clear consensus to emerge on the reforms to undertake. The consequence is the very particular nature of the communication tactic of April 25: the French widely mobilized to participate (nearly two million contributions, thousands of meetings in three months) and they were finally invited after 3 months and 10 days to listen to the conclusions that the President, on his own, drew from it. For weeks, members of the Government, the representatives of the parliamentary majority, not to mention the media and commentators, tirelessly referred to the President’s future decisions. This antinomy between the very process of the debate and the way in which the conclusions were drawn was, in our view, one of the most striking features of the press conference. It reflected particularly through the number of times the President said “I” or “I want”.
Probably never along the Fifth Republic (except perhaps on the Algerian file) the hyper-presidentialization had not been so evident. Which is both paradoxical and risky.Paradoxical as the questioning of the excessive verticality of power is one of the deepest springs of the current discomfort. If there is one point that has a broad consensus, it is definitively this one.Risky because the President is alone before his fellow citizens, meaning that this high degree of personalization breeds hostility if not unprecedented hatred in a still minor fraction of the opinion. It could lead to uncontrolled and uncontrollable backfires.