It had been coming for a while. The unexpected tenacity of the gilets jaunes, and their evolution into a protest movement against inequality, demanded a political response. At the end of last year, France’s President Macron delivered. He announced that in the New Year, France would engage in a “grand debat” across the country that he would launch off with a letter to the people.
At a time when our own politics seems a bit mired, I’ve been keenly looking for ways to enliven democracy and bring some faith back into the relationship between electors and their elected. And what better place to do this than in the land of bastille-storming, strike action and political philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French know how to do politics. And it seems, they keep reinventing how to go about it.
On Monday, the President delivered his letter to the people. One and a half full broadsheet pages. He was thorough. It took me three mornings of breakfast cereal reading time to get through it. I was impressed by its clarity: I didn’t need a dictionary and only had to re-read a handful of phrases. It was clearly written to be accessible to all. But at the same time it covered his main issues: taxes and public services; State institutions, democracy and citizenship; immigration; and environment.
Macron hopes for huge participation and, although there are regional meetings and a website, he’s relying heavily on the most local level of government – the mayors.
“The mayors will have an essential role because they are your elected officials and so are the most legitimate intermediaries to express the views of citizens.”
Apparently, 68% of French people are satisfied with their mayor, which is perhaps also why Macron has emphasised their role. The mayors themselves have responded with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The sceptics will only offer an open book for citizen contributions, while other more enthusiastic mayors are organising public feedback events.
The varied responses are understandable. They’ve never been in this position before. In my catch-up with my local pastor today, I explained how new all this was to me.
“It’s totally new for us too.” She replied with a wry smile.
“But I’m really keen to get the parishioners involved. It’s a chance for us to emphasise the importance of social justice. It’s the first time everyday people have had the chance to make these points directly to the President.”
This man, accused of being aloof and elitist, is now trying to get in touch: to hear the truths of the people. These people who elected him in hope. When I ask locals here about their view of the President, many respond: “I voted for him. I liked his plans for change. But I don’t think he’s been going about it the right way.”
He seems to have got the picture. In his letter, he explains that his commitment to his overarching plan of reform hasn’t wavered. What’s on the table now is how these principles should be turned into action. And he’s open to every and all ideas. Nothing is forbidden, except violence and insults.
Will it work? Who knows. There’s sure to be an unmanageable amount of content. But I can’t help but admire this big move to throw it all open. To invite every French person to air their concerns and propose their solutions. I love the thought of all those tiny mayor’s offices I’ve passed in the hilltop towns and valley villages around here, being involved in national policy-making.
This is the only way I can see to rebuild people’s faith in democracy – bring them closer to the decision-making. Bring together politicians and public servants, with everyday people for a respectful conversation about what matters and how to make things better. Let the highly educated share their deeply-researched views, and let the citizens share their accumulated lived experience. It’s only when these two sides find the intersecting space, that both will feel they’ve found the right path towards a better future for all.
Vive la démocratie ! Liberté, égalité, fraternité !