PARIS—A crisis of representative democracy is unfolding in France.
For months now, President Emmanuel Macron has been crisscrossing the country for a grand débat, a series of town meetings he called in January to address the discontent embodied by the “yellow vest” movement. These demonstrations began as a protest of a fuel-tax hike and have now evolved into a wave of economic anxiety and anti-establishment sentiment—with bursts of violence, such as the torching of banks and businesses in Paris this past weekend. The latest incidents, part of “Act 18” of the movement’s weekly Saturday protests, were planned to mark the end of the grand débat.
The French president has been trying to claw back the support of local officials and citizens who felt ignored by a leader they saw as arrogant and out of touch, something of a populist in his own right who seemed to have little use for traditional mediators—mayors, unions—that stood between him and the people. Thousands have come together during the debates in a spirit of solidarity, discussion, and political engagement.
Many of these debates have come to their scheduled end, so the question arises: Now what?
How should an elected government contend with an upswell that represents a lack of faith in the institutions of representative democracy? How should the authorities respond when there’s no logical political outlet for the discontent, when the movement, on principle, refuses to select leaders or become a party? Above all, how should Macron and his government respond to a movement that has strong elements who are in opposition not simply to policies, but to representative power itself?