Maires de France: The Great Debate

When I first heard the expression, ‘Les maires de France’, on the radio years ago, I wondered why they were talking about French mothers. Was there some formal association? Why wasn’t I a member?

Soon enough I realized my mistake, an easy enough one to make for a non-native. Homonyms represent a special challenge. Especially this series: mères, mers and merde. Aside from mothers, we also have seas (although possibly not exclusively belonging to France), and we definitely have, ahem, our share of shit.

Basically, context is everything.

The Mayors of France have been in the news this week as they are instrumental to Macron’s much talked about initiative, ‘Le Grand Débat National’. Kicked off by the government in December in response to the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement, it is, somewhat ironically, not supported by the majority of that group.

The Great Debate, as I shall refer to it here, covers four main areas: the environment (transition écologique); taxation and government spending; democracy and citizenship; public services. It is a grass-roots affair of public consultation previously unseen, at least in my experience, in France.

Between now and April, public debates are being organized by the mayors of each city, town and local community so that people can weigh in on the topics that matter to them. The mayors have been asked to step up and lead the process, on a volunteer basis. Some have declined and citizens are free to organize their own debates. Starting by collecting a list of grievances and suggestions. (I wish them beaucoup de courage!)

It is a hugely ambitious endeavour, and it could be a game changer. Although critics are putting it down to PR exercise, for the first time all French citizens have a chance to give voice to their opinions on how this country is run. Is the role of Senator worth preserving? Which taxes are fair and which should be tossed out? What institutions are in need of urgent reform?

It is all very modern with a dedicated website ( and with events organized and shared on Facebook. My understanding is that following the live debates, citizens will also have a chance to put their two cents in online.

Emmanuel Macron held a kick-off event last week in the small town of Grand Bourgtheroulde (don’t even try to pronounce it; even journalists can’t) in Normandy, with the mayors from 600 mostly rural communes (French administrative divisions). A fraction of the total of France’s 35,528 mayors. That number alone is an indication of the administrative challenges we face.

France being a country that does not do things by halfway measures, the meeting lasted – wait for it – almost 7 hours. Whether or not you support Macron (I do), you have to admit he gave it his all. The chilly reception from the mayors at the start of the meeting was followed by a standing ovation when it ended.

Perhaps desperate to bring it to an end, six hours into the debate one mayor managed to ask a technical question for which the President had no answer. It added a bit of comic relief.

For anyone with the interest or courage to sit through the marathon exchange, here it is.

I will definitely be adding my two cents. What are yours?


  1. CG · January 24, 2019

    The Maire with the blue scarf in the front row looks prepared to sleep through all the 7 hours.

    • MELewis · January 24, 2019

      😂 I sure she wasn’t the only one! Possibly the most butt-numbing experience of their lives.

    • cliffcathi · January 24, 2019

      She may be praying. Smile.

  2. Heide · January 24, 2019

    Thank you (once again) for such an informative post! You really have a gift for taking complex events and explaining them simply and succinctly. It gives me hope for Macron’s administration that he is finally setting up mechanisms for listening to the people of France. He won’t be able to implement even a fraction of their requests, of course — but sometimes just feeling listened to goes a long way toward making “le peuple” feel that the government is on their side. It’ll be fascinating to see what major themes come out of this unprecedented public discussion.

    • MELewis · January 24, 2019

      My pleasure, Heide! Always happy to help decode the ins and outs of this complex country. It has taken me years to understand it myself, so if I can help others get it too, great! 🤗 I agree, it does give us hope for this administration. And we need it. Lately I have felt like it’s the end of the world as we know it, with countries all over the world falling apart or ceding to populist extremes. If he truly listens to what people say and acts on it, I think the operation has the chance of making a real difference. Fingers crossed!

      • Heide · January 24, 2019

        Doigts croisés !

  3. George lewis · January 24, 2019

    The French are always happy if they can talk, argue or debate about an issue. We have been doing this for years in Canada about Quebec separation. If Quebecers can talk about separation you can keep them happy. Nothing ever really happens, everything remains the same. This will probably happen in France.

    • MELewis · January 26, 2019

      I doubt it. Talk is cheap and if nothing changes, we will see the continued rise of violent social unrest seen over the past few months. I can’t comment on Québec (and officially deny any link with your opinions other than our shared DNA 😣). But it is very positive to see barriers being broken down and people starting to talk.

  4. acflory · January 25, 2019

    Good on him! This is what gives social media its power – the ability to have a say. Macron has put his finger on the pulse of the times, but he’s made it face-to-face. For my money, this is true democracy at work. 😀

    • MELewis · January 26, 2019

      I agree! It’s a bold step in the right direction. Just hope my compatriots will be open to new ideas. And that the government will be able to effect true change without a revolution!

      • acflory · January 26, 2019

        We can but hope. Oddly enough, win or lose, I admire his attempt to practise true democracy for a change.

  5. Susanne · January 26, 2019

    I applaud Macron’s attempt at gathering grass roots information and hearing from as many ordinary French folk as possible. Engaging the mayors seems like a reasonable way to go to hear the varied voices. The real test will be what he DOES with what he learns.

    • MELewis · January 28, 2019

      You are right, Susanne. That is when it will really get tough. Reform is impossible around here without strikes, demonstrations, violence…all of which keep business away. But we need both. So walking that line will be a challenge. It’s going to be an interesting year!

  6. Pingback: Cahier des doléances – FranceSays

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