FOCUS: Will France’s Macron really risk a referendum?

FOCUS: Will France's Macron really risk a referendum?
Macron speaks at a meeting in Etang-sur-Arroux, central France, as part of the 'great national debate', his response to the yellow vest protests. Photo: AFP
President Emmanuel Macron could be set to organise France's first referendum in 14 years to end months of "yellow vest" protests, but analysts say the move is a risky gamble.

Macron has clawed back some lost popularity in recent weeks by throwing himself into his “grand national debate”, a series of townhall events aimed at damping down the yellow vest revolt which began in November.

But the real test for the 41-year-old will be what he does with the feedback from hundreds of conversations under way around the country, as well as the 700,000-plus contributions made online.

Macron has confirmed that he is considering calling a referendum on some of the demands emanating from the public consultation, reportedly on the same day as elections for the European parliament on May 26.

READ ALSO: Why Macron's efforts to calm the rebellion could end in disaster

'Macron kills' reads this gilets jaunes-themed flag hoisted during February 2nd's yellow vest demo in Paris. Photo: AFP

“At some point, I might end up having to ask our citizens about this or that,” he told a townhall meeting in front of young people in the southern suburbs of Paris on Monday evening.

Macron's hero, post-war leader Charles de Gaulle, is the architect of the current constitution and saw referendums as an important part of governing France under a system that concentrates power in the hands of the president.

De Gaulle cemented his position by winning three referendums, but he fell at the fourth, with the “Non” to his regional and Senate reforms in 1969 prompting him to step down as president.

“You go for double or quits to try to get out of a crisis… at the risk of being plunged into an even deeper crisis,” Jean-Philippe Derosier, a law professor and constitutional expert at the University of Lille told AFP.

Since De Gaulle, French presidents have been skittish about consulting the people, with only five referendums held in that time.

The last one was in 2005 when voters – already itching to give their leaders a drubbing – rejected a new European constitution in a shock defeat for then president Jacques Chirac.

Direct democracy

A referendum would be the culminating point of Macron's efforts to turn the page on the worst crisis of his 20-month-old presidency.

Protesters in rural and small-town France began occupying roundabouts in mid-November. The movement ballooned into an anti-Macron revolt, with weekly rallies in Paris and other cities regularly turning violent.

The president's first response was to announce a 10-billion-euro ($11.4 million) package of tax cuts and state top-ups for low-income workers and pensioners.

He then launched the “great national debate”, promising it will lead to real changes.

Putting some ideas to a referendum could help boost his legitimacy and address criticism that he is deaf to the worries of regular voters.

“One of the main takeaways from the yellow vest movement is the impression that many in France believe that they are not given enough consideration by discredited political elites,” Jean Garrigues, history professor at Sciences Po and Orleans universities, told AFP.

Finding the balance

But there are two potential problems.

Some ministers and MPs in Macron's party worry that holding the referendum on the same day as the European polls would lead to a confusing election campaign.

And analysts say Macron would also need to find a balance between asking meaningful questions to the electorate and avoiding hot topics that could lead to a damaging personal defeat.

“People generally forget to answer the question asked and instead answer the person asking the question – making it a plebiscite on whether they support the president or not,” Derosier said.

Macron is reportedly considering putting several proposals to the nation which enjoy broad support, such as reducing the number of national lawmakers or imposing a limit on the number of terms politicians can serve.

Others, like the leader of the main opposition Republicans party, Laurent Wauquiez, have suggested that Macron should put his economic policy – based on attracting investment and encouraging entrepreneurship – to the referendum test.

The yellow vests also want more, including the possibility of organising Swiss-style citizen-sponsored ballots on issues of national importance.

Macron, who championed grassroots democracy during campaigning, appears reluctant to go down that path.

“I don't believe in holding referendums every day on every subject,” he told a group of young people on Thursday in the central Saone-et-Loire region.

“Look at what happened in Britain,” he said, pointing to Brexit as an example of the “demagoguery” and over-simplification of complex issues that can sway Yes/No votes

by Clare Byrne


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