PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron’s two-month political Tour de France came to a close Friday. Since mid-January, Macron has made surprise appearances in dozens of towns around the country, urging the French to engage in an initiative he called the Grand National Debate.
These staged, hours-long debates emerged as Macron’s response to the Yellow Vests protests, which have threatened to derail his presidency and remain strong four months after they started. The movement is comprised of mostly working-class French, who are distrustful of the political class and feel shunned by the elites.
Through 10,000 locally organized debates, 16,000 grievance books, and 1.5 million online questionnaires, the French people have voiced their discontent on the four central themes of Macron’s national debate: democracy and citizenship, taxes and public spending, green energy, and public services. Third-party research companies, hired with the help of a 10-to-15 million–euro budget, are swinging into high gear to crunch all the data by April, when Macron plans to announce his first proposals.
But it’s far from clear if Macron’s stunt has paid off, and Yellow Vests remain highly skeptical of it. Indeed, despite a series of concessions in early December — most notably a commitment to increase the monthly minimum wage by 100 euros, and dropping the fuel tax, which was the impetus for the Yellow Vests — Macron still has a woeful approval rating of just 28 percent.
In the post-industrial town of Revin, in the northern region of Ardennes bordering Belgium, Chabane Sehel, an unemployment counselor and early adopter of the movement, took up Macron on his call for conversation. After some hesitation, he organized a town hall meeting.
“Right now, France is a pressure cooker,” said Sehel, born and raised in Revin, where one in four residents is out of work. “And so, before it explodes, for Macron and for his government, it’s best that they hear us out, at a minimum.”
While organizers like Sehel saw an opportunity to take the demands from the streets to paper, many Yellow Vests boycotted the Grand Debates, which they viewed as a PR campaign orchestrated by Macron’s party to persuade voters ahead of the European parliamentary elections in May.
At a supermarket blockade in Charleville-Mézières, the largest town in Ardennes, VICE News asked one protester what he thought of Macron’s crusade to solve the French crisis.
“I don’t think much of the Grand Debate,” said Thierry Genin, 67. “It’s all smoke and mirrors to go around and meet with mayors from all over.”
He added, “I don’t belong to a political party, neither to the far right nor to the far left, nor to a labor union. I am simply a guy, who is tired of busting his ass to earn crumbs, like many French people right now.”
On Saturday, 10,000 protesters converged in the capital for the four-month mark of protests, to voice their ongoing frustration with the government. But the crowd was infiltrated by some 1,500 ultra-violent activists, according to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, and things quickly went south.
Rioters swarmed down the Champs Élysées, attacking luxury stores in their way and setting fire to Fouquet’s, a famed brasserie and UNESCO world heritage site. Members of the Yellow Vest movement condemned the violence, but the damage was significant: In total, 91 businesses were impacted by the riots.
Macron cut short a ski trip to call an emergency meeting in Paris, where he recognized that law enforcement had failed to contain rioting. Monday, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced increased security measures and banned protests on the Champs-Élysées, and in popular public spaces in other cities.
“We have organized the largest debate this country has ever known,” Philippe tweeted Monday, “It is not a coincidence that vandals are mobilizing again, while the debate was a success. These people don’t want discussion. Their only demand is violence.”
This segment originally aired March 14, 2019 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.