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President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday kicked off a three-month national debate he hopes can quell the “yellow vest” unrest with a letter to the French in which he pledged to listen to new ideas but stuck to his core economic reform agenda.
Macron‘s initiative comes after nine weeks of protests by the Yellow Vests” – named after the high-visibility jackets they wear. The disparate anti-government uprising has wreaked havoc in Paris and French cities, shaken the economy and challenged his authority.
“For me, there is no banned issue. We won’t agree on everything, which is normal in a democracy. But at least we’ll show we’re a people which is not afraid of talking, exchanging, debating,” Macron wrote in the letter published by his office.
But Macron said he would remain faithful to his campaign manifesto, and appeared to rule out rolling back some of the pro-business economic reforms, such as scrapping a wealth tax, which have earned him the nickname “president of the rich”.
“When taxes are too high, our economy is starved of the resources that could be usefully invested in companies, creating jobs and growth,” Macron wrote.
“We will not undo the measures we have introduced to put this right, encourage investment and ensure that work pays more.”
In the 2,330-word letter, to be published in French newspapers, he also asked a series of questions he hoped the French will answer in town hall meetings across the country or in online questionnaires.
The questions that will be debated include: “Which taxes do you think should be lowered first?”, “Should some public services that are out of date or too expensive be eliminated?”, “What concrete proposals do you think would accelerate our environmental transition?” and “Should we use more referendums?”.
The immigration question asked: “Once our asylum obligations are fulfilled, do you want parliament to be able to set annual targets?”.
While Macron assured that there were “no forbidden questions”, he did say that the right to seek asylum “could not be questioned”.
One of the frequent demands from the protesters, who are mostly from rural or small-town France, is a repeal of Macron’s move last year to cut the ISF “fortune tax”, which was previously levied on high-earners.
“We will not pursue tax cuts without lowering the overall level of our public spending,” Macron said in the letter.
Macron said he would “directly report” on the consultation in the month after the debates, which are to run from January 15 to March 15.
The president will embark on a tour of town-hall meetings around the country, the first of which will be held on Tuesday with local mayors in Bourgtheroulde in northern France.
‘Founding congress’ fails
The national debate is the third prong of the 41-year-old leader’s strategy for ending the Yellow Vest protests, which erupted over high fuel taxes in November but then ballooned into a widely supported revolt over living standards.
Macron has already opened the state’s purse strings, scrapping fuel tax hikes as part of a €10 billion package of wage boosts and tax relief for low earners.
At the same time, the government has vowed to crack down on the continuing Saturday protests in Paris and other cities, with their now-routine scenes of burning cars, smashing up shops and clashes with police.
While the latest protests saw an increase in turnout to 84,000 from 50,000 the previous week, there was a decline in violence, despite hundreds of arrests and clashes with police in Paris and other cities.
To give a more unified response in the debate, some Yellow Vests attempted to form a “founding congress” in the southern city of Perpignan on Sunday.
However. the attempt to build a more traditional leadership structure – which the movement has so far shunned – quickly failed, with organisers shouted down by some of the 600 in attendance, a third of whom promptly walked out.
The protesters also came under fire on Sunday over numerous attacks and threats against journalists across the country.
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said “a turning point has been reached” after journalists were beaten, kicked and threatened with rape during the rallies.
“We call on the spokespersons of the Yellow Vests to solemnly condemn increasing violence against journalists during demonstrations,” he tweeted.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)