That’s one reason this national conversation may quell tensions for a while but probably won’t end the yellow-vest movement for good. The gilets jaunes, so named for the roadside safety vests that drivers must keep in their vehicles at all times, are here to stay precisely because the movement is so inchoate in form, so leaderless in organization, and so diffuse in its demands. And also so successful in driving the debate. Political parties across the spectrum and labor unions have been trying to channel the movement’s momentum, but so far to no avail. That puts France in uncharted political territory.
That is what makes this grand débat all the more complex. Normally, elections are held to gauge political sentiment. But how do you harness the concerns of citizens without undermining the government’s own mandate, at a time when the government’s only significant political opposition comes from the far right and the far left?
Some political scientists are calling Macron’s approach an unprecedented step in representative democracy, a step toward greater citizen engagement and more direct democracy while still keeping France’s august hierarchical structures in place. It’s the country’s attempt to capture some of the anger of the moment without forcing an array of issues into a Brexit-like referendum, a yes/no question whose answer doesn’t solve any of the underlying problems.
The philosopher Bruno Latour this week compared France today to Britain ahead of the 2016 Brexit vote, when vague questions of national identity coalesced around membership in the European Union. The French situation has had its own elements of strange political theater, though, and Latour sees the grand débat as more of a kind of poll than a means of changing the government’s program. We have “the yellow vests who don’t know exactly what they want and a government that’s completely incapable of listening,” Latour told French radio.
As part of the national debate, citizens can register their concerns in cahiers de doléances, or grievance logs, a practice first put into use during the French Revolution. An online forum that polled citizens’ concerns showed a vast range of issues: Some wanted to change unemployment compensation, or increase taxes for the rich and on second homes, or proposed the elimination of bank fees; others were upset that the government had reduced the speed limit to 80 km an hour. For his part, Macron asked his constituents to consider which public services they wouldn’t mind reducing. That’s something of a taboo in France, where citizens of every political persuasion rely on the state for all manner of support—the exact opposite of American-style mistrust of government.
“This grand debate is a kind of reality test,” Étienne Balibar, a Marxist philosopher and scholar, said at a debate last week in Paris, where he expressed his enthusiasm about the yellow-vest movement. If the discussion unfolds the way the government hopes it will—peacefully, leading to constructive proposals that don’t contradict the ones on which the government was elected—it will raise a tricky new question: What should the government do? “In what circumstances can a political power decide to choose not only to use chaos as blackmail, but to choose chaos as a political strategy?” Balibar asked.