France: Start of a Difficult but Vital National Dialogue
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 21 Jan 2019
20 Jan 2019 – After two months of protests, discussions, and some physical violence beginning on 17 November 2018, the French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to organize a national dialogue from 15 January 2019 to 15 March. It is a difficult task as French political culture is one in which people easily talk but rarely listen. A national dialogue of this type has not been held before. There is neither a tradition on which to build nor the institutions already in place for such a dialogue. The agents chosen by the President to organize the dialogue are the mayors, the elected representatives thought to be closest to local thinking.
However, there are 36,000 mayors in France ranging from the mayor of a large city such as Paris to the mayor of small villages such as the mountain village in south-central France where I live. The village has 400 people in the census count but in fact fewer since a good number of people work elsewhere but keep a census address since they have a family home which they use during the summer vacation. Obviously, relations to local elected figures are different. Moreover, persons like myself who live in France permanently but who are not French citizens are not invited to the dialogue. The dialogue starts just at the same time when the U.K. may withdraw from the European Union leaving the British living in France in a sort of “no man’s land.” The fate of the British is a reminder that there are a good number of people living in France, and thus concerned with what goes on, who are not French citizens. They are often not part of the welfare, and pension systems which are key subjects of the dialogue.
There has not been such a national debate before, although a technique used on the eve of the French Revolution has been introduced. In the Spring of 1789, a few months before 14 July considered the official start of the French Revolution, the King Louis XVI had his local officials open local notebooks, called Cahiers de Doléances, in which people could come and write their difficulties and any suggestions for reforms. Today, all mayors are encouraged to place such notebooks in each town hall. There are already a good number of people who have filled in their problems and views. In keeping with technological progress, one can send in one’s views via the internet. A good many people have. In keeping with the 1789 symbolism, many of the comments concern the taxation system considered unfair and the high cost of living. The parallel with 1789 has led some to ask “Is the Revolution next?”
There have been country-wide prolonged demonstrations in France before, especially in 1936 related to the depression and in May 1968 which began with student-led protests. However, in the past, the protest movements were led by existing organizations considered as legitimate: trade unions in 1936 and student unions in 1968. The character of the current demonstration is different with no visible national leaders and no common organizations. The examples often cited by the media are the “Occupy” movements in the U.S.A. and the “Arab Spring” demonstration in Tunisia and Egypt.
The demonstrators took as the common sign of identification a yellow vest. The protests have taken the name of “gilets jaunes“. In France, by law, each auto must be equipped with a triangle that reflects light. The triangle is to be put some 10 feet from the car if it is stopped on the road to warn oncoming drivers. Also each driver must have a yellow luminous vest also to warn other drivers that he is there and in trouble. The symbolism was ready made. The yellow vests are those who are in danger and who are not seen unless they put on their yellow vest.
The “yellow vests” have led to a discovery of “Another France”. Political leaders are not sure how to deal with these people who have not really been “seen” before putting on their yellow vest. Governments in the past have had to deal with labor unrest, but there were trade unions with national elected leadership as well as employers’ associations. These could all be called together to discuss. Students, especially at the university level, are also relatively well organized into national organizations. This time, rather than the university students, the “yellow vests” were joined by a large number of secondary school students who went on strike with their own demands but with less structured organizations.
This “Another France” has taken to demonstrating on cross roads and roundabouts where cars and trucks have to slow down or stop. The start of the movement began as a protest to a higher tax on car fuel, a tax to discourage car use, a measure thought necessary by the government for ecological reasons. The government decision underestimated the reaction of people living in rural areas or those in the suburbs of large cities who must drive 30 or 40 miles each day for their work. These people are farmers on relatively small holdings, shop keepers or shop workers, a rather diverse cross-section of people who are not organized into pressure groups. Most have not demonstrated before.
Once the movement got under way in most parts of the country by the end of November, other groups or individuals joined in. A relatively large new group of people were those living on pensions which they felt had not kept pace with the cost of living. There are also those “looking for a fight”, who are willing to use violence, burn a car, break a shop window whenever there is a mass of protesters in the street regardless of the theme of the protest.
The national dialogue, also called a national debate, is likely to bring to light a host of issues, tensions and divisions. I will return to these themes as the dialogue progresses.
René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Jan 2019.
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