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

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.

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

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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Revealed: What will you receive from France’s €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

The French parliament has finally passed a massive €65 billion package of measures aimed at helping French residents with the spiralling cost of living. Here's a rundown of the help on offer, who it's available to and when it comes into effect.

Revealed: What will you receive from France's €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

After three weeks of sometimes heated debate, France’s parliament has adopted its multi-part purchasing power package to help mitigate rising cost of living and inflation.

In total, parliament approved a budget of nearly €65 billion for the whole package. 

It includes a raft of measures including price shields, tax rebates and grants. Here’s what is included and who will benefit.

Electricity and gas The government has voted to extend the tariff shield on gas and electricity prices until the end of the year: this means that gas prices will continue to remain frozen and that price hikes for electricity prices will be capped at four percent. 

For who: This applies to everyone who has a gas or electricity account in France.

When: The price freeze is already in effect and will continue until at least December 31st.

Fuel subsidy – The government’s fuel rebate (on petrol/gasoline and diesel) will be increased from €0.18 per litre to €0.30 in September and October, and then in November and December it will fall to €0.10. 

For who: All drivers (including tourists) – this is applied automatically at all fuel stations in France

When: The €0.18 per litre rebate is already in place and remains until August 31st, and rises to €0.30 on September 1st.

Pensions – The index point for pensions will be raised by four percent.

Who: This covers anyone who receives a French pension – roughly 14 million people – it does not affect anyone who gets a pension from another country.

When: From September 9th. 

Abolishing the TV licence fee – The annual TV licence raised €3.7 billion a year for public broadcasting, with the majority having gone toward France Télévisions, but has now been scrapped. It was €138 per household. 

For who: Any household with a television. This equates to about 23 million households in France who will no longer have to pay this yearly tax.

When: The was due to be levied on November 15th, but this year no bills will be sent out.

Tripling the Macron bonus – The maximum annual bonus – which is exempt from income and social security taxes – will be tripled.

It is a one time, tax-free payout that can be given to workers by their employers – if they chose to. Companies will now be able to pay up to €3,000 to their employees (and up to €6,000 for those with a profit-sharing scheme).

Who: This pertains to salariés (employees) whose businesses choose to offer this bonus.

When: The bonus can be paid between August 1st and December 31st.

Rent cap – Rent increases will be limited to 3.5 percent per year for existing tenants. Some cities already have in place their own rent control schemes, but the 3.5 percent cap is nationwide.

Who – This affects anyone who already has a tenancy agreement for a property in France (and also affects all landlords who are banned from making big rent hikes).

When – The 3.5 percent cap concerns annual rent increases that fall between July 2022 and June 2023.

Housing allowance – Those who benefit from personalised assistance for housing (APL) will see that increased by 3.5 percent.

Who: This pertains to those who qualify for governmental financial assistance with rent. Typically, this means low-income households. If you are already on APL – around 3.5 million people – the increase will be automatic, if you think you might qualify, apply through your local CAF.

When: The increase comes in your next payment, with the increased rate backdated to July 1st 2022.

Social benefits – The RSA top-up benefit will be increased by four percent (local authorities, who deal with RSA, will receive €600 million to help them finance and allocate this increase). Additionally, those who benefit from the ‘prime d’activité‘ (activity bonus) will see that value raised by four percent as well.

Who: Unemployed people below the age of 25 can qualify for RSA – this pertains to about 1.9 million people in France. The activity bonus is available to low-income workers – about 4.3 million people.

When: Catch-up payments will be in place from August 18th to September 5th. On September 5th, the updated payment will begin to be paid out.

Student grants – An increase of 4 percent for student grants (bourses) for higher education

Who: Students under the age of 28 who qualify for financial assistance in the form of grants. These students must qualify as ‘financially precarious’ for the school year of 2022-2023.

When: September 2022

Back-to-school grants – Families who meet certain income requirements are eligible for an allowance to help cover back-to-school costs – that grant will increase by four percent this year. There will also be an extra €100 subsidy for eligible families (with an additional €50 per child) paid “to those who need it most” according to Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in an interview with RTL. 

Who: Low-income families with children. You can test your family’s eligibility on the website This aid will impact 10.8 million households.

When: The one time payment will be paid at the start of the school-year in September.

The option to convert overtime days into extra cash – This is encompassed in two measures: increasing the ceiling of tax exempt overtime hours to €7,500 and opening the possibility for companies to buy back RTT days from their employees.

Eligible employees covered by the 35-hour week agreement accrue time in lieu if they work overtime, known as RTT days. Currently this time is taken as extra vacation days, but now employees will have the option to forgo the time off and instead be paid extra.

Who: For the buying back of RTT days, this applies to employees (salariés) who have an RTT agreement with their company.

For the increased cap on non-taxed overtime work, this applies to a range of employees, such as those who have 35-hour per week contracts and have their employer request that they work overtime or those who work beyond their part-time contract amount. You can learn more about whether you have the ability to declare overtime hours HERE

When: The RTT days buyout will run from between January 1st, 2022 to December 31st, 2025. For employees eligible for tax-free overtime compensation, the ceiling of €7,500 will only be in place for the year 2022.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is France’s 35-hour week such a sacred cow?

Pay rise for public sector workers – public sector pay will get a four percent rise in the index.

Who: Anyone employed in France as a fonctionnaire (eg civil servants, teachers, librarians).

When: This will be retroactive to July 1st

Assistance for some self-employed workers – A reduction in health and maternity insurance contributions will be introduced for low-earning self-employed workers. “Microentrepreneurs” will also benefit from a reduction in their flat-rate contributions.

Who: Self-employed workers whose monthly income does not exceed 1.6 times the minimum wage and who are registered as ‘microentrepeneurs’

When: TBC

The biometric carte vitale –  The Senate introduced this into the purchasing power package, but it is not a benefit. It will involve the implementation of a biometric carte vitale health card to “fight against social fraud” by adding an electronic chip with biometric data on it to health insurance cards. You can read more HERE.

Who: Everyone who is registered in the French health system and has a carte vitale (about 60 million people)

When: Lawmakers will begin plans to implement the plans in Autumn 2022, but it’s not clearly exactly what form the rollout will take.

How much will these measures impact inflation?

Some measures will likely be more effective than others. For instance, the extension of the tariff shield and increase of the fuel rebate in the early fall is largely to thank for France’s inflation level being two points lower than the European average, according to INSEE.

On the other hand, the tripling of the ceiling for the (optional) Macron bonus will likely not make a large difference. This is because it will likely not be widely taken advantage of, as last year only 4 million French people received the optional bonus, with the approximate average of the bonus having been only €500.

The pension changes will impact about 14.8 million people in France. However, according to economist Christopher Dembik, the revalorsation values are based on actual inflation and not on inflation expectations. “These revaluation measures will be too weak by the time they will be implemented,” Dembik said to French daily Le Parisien.