OPINION: Why Macron’s efforts to calm the rebellion could end in disaster

Emmanuel Macron’s Great National Debate has been an unexpected success. It risks ending in disaster, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Why Macron's efforts to calm the rebellion could end in disaster
"Macron kills" reads this gilets jaunes-themed French flag, hoisted during February 2nd's yellow vest demo in Paris. Photo: AFP

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.

Member comments

  1. The concept of citizens’ assemblies is proving popular, along with more routine , along the Swiss model. The Swiss mechanism is interesting, particularly as 25% of the population is prevented from voting, as naturalisation or citizenship for individuals has long been dependent on a local, secret vote, rather than objective criteria (now being changed), and participation on referenda on most key issues is often less than 40% (the minimum level for key changes to the constitution) and are therefore discounted. It is “democracy” for the lazy, and resulted in such things as women not having the vote until 1971 – even then at least one Canton held out until the 1990’s before being forced to uphold the decision.

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.