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 (https://granddebat.fr/) 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?

Gilets jaunes et coups de gueules

The subversive messages started going around on Facebook in October. It was all very hush-hush, in the spirit of the resistance that characterizes such movements in France. The gist was this: Stop! Enough already. The French people are already taxed to death. It is time to stand up and say no more. Ça suffit!

In protest against the latest round of price hikes at the gas pumps, 60% of which is tax, we were urged to get out our high-visibility vests on November 17 and join the protests and blockades to bring the country to a halt.

So was born the popular movement of ‘les gilets jaunes’ – the yellow vests – in France. The name is a natural as every French vehicle is required to have one of these on board.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, this video went viral.

Its author, Jacline Mouraud, has become the unlikely, sweet-faced spokesperson for the movement. Or perhaps not so unlikely. Because she speaks a certain amount of truths, simply but with heart. And there is no denying that the Macron government seems to be tone deaf to the outrage of the working poor, those who earn the minimum wage of around 1200 euros net per month (9 EUR per hour).

As she asks the government: What are you doing with all that extra money from our higher gas prices, the radar traps, the ‘contrôles techniques’ on older vehicles? Other than buying new dishes for the Elysée Palace or updating your swimming pools!

She also spews quite a bit of misleading information – fake news, in popular parlance. There is no ‘carte grise’ or license for bicycles, nor a government plot to get us all riding around on trottinettes.

But it has got a lot of angry French people out to protest since Saturday.

Sadly, two people were killed and over 600 injured, among both protesters and the police. And it ain’t over yet.

The higher prices for gas, especially for drivers of diesel vehicles of which the poor represent the majority, is just the tip of the iceberg. The ‘ras le bol’ (sense of being fed up) among the French goes beyond the government’s carbon tax to compensate for new, more ecologically friendly, modes of transport. Even the poorest taxpayers understand the need to cut pollution. It is the fact that people here feel their purchasing power diminishing, that seniors can no longer count on their pensions to cover the cost of living, that working people cannot make ends meet.

It is a context that is popular and political and fired by a sense of social injustice. I hear rumblings of student protests and if that happens, well…who knows?

What do you think about the ‘yellow vests’?