In an open letter, Emmanuel Macron asks every French citizen to answer 20 big questions

Vive la révolution.
Vive la révolution.
Image: Reuters / Jean-Paul Pelissier
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France’s “yellow vest” protests, now in their ninth week and showing no signs of stopping, have put president Emmanuel Macron in the unusual position of having to ask for help.

The typically self-assured president has tried different strategies to appease the yellow-vest movement—to no avail. Now, he is trying something new. In an open letter to French people (link in French) published in national newspapers today, Macron announced a nationwide consultation that will run until March 15, allowing people to air their grievances online and in local mayors’ offices. To kickstart the debate, he asked fellow citizens 20 big questions—and pledged to listen to their answers. 

The questions, separated into four main categories, apply to any country struggling with economic inequality, austerity, the role of the state, climate change, and democracy. (That is to say, just about all of them.)

Economic inequality and public spending

Macron writes that “taxes are at the heart of our national solidarity” because they “finance our public services.” France levies some of the highest taxes of any developed country.

One of the yellow vests’ central grievance (link in French) is that taxes are too high and disproportionately affect the working class. The movement also demands more public services, financed by higher taxes on high earners and large corporations. This goes against Macron’s business-friendly economic policies, including ending the so-called wealth tax, or ISF, and instituting a flat capital gains tax rate (paywall) of 30%.

In his letter, Macron asks people what kind of tax system would allow business and enterprise to flourish, while also helping the most vulnerable and lightening the burden of the working class:

  • “How can we make our tax system fairer and more efficient? What taxes do you think should be lowered first?”
  • “What are the most important savings that you think we should make?”
  • “Should we remove some public services that are outdated or too expensive compared to their usefulness? Conversely, do you see new needs for public services and how to finance them?”
  • “How can we better organize our social contract? Which objectives should be prioritized?”

What constitutes “fair” taxation is far from a new question in France. As Tocqueville wrote in the 19th century“The appetite for public service and the desire to live from taxation is the great and permanent infirmity of France.”

The role of the state

According to a recent survey of OECD countries (link in French), France employs fewer public servants per capita than countries like Norway or Finland, but many more than the United States, Germany, or Spain. Macron, who wants to reduce the number of public servants (link in French), asks in his letter:

  • “Are there too many administrative or local government levels? Should we reinforce decentralization and give more decision-making power closer to citizens? At what levels and for which services?”
  • “How would you like the state to be organized and how can it improve its action? Should we review the functioning of the administration and how?”
  • “How can the state and local communities improve to better meet the challenges of our most troubled territories and what do you propose?”

Climate change and the environment

The yellow-vest movement began as a way to oppose the government’s carbon tax increase, which is why the question of how to offset the costs of green policies is central to this and similar movements around the world. In his letter, Macron asks:

  • “How do we finance the ecological transition?”
  • “How do we make concrete solutions, like replacing old boilers or old cars, accessible to all? What are the simplest and most financially sustainable solutions?”
  • “What are the solutions for moving, housing, heating, feeding that should be designed at the local rather than the national level? What concrete proposals would you make to accelerate our environmental transition?”
  • “How do we guarantee scientifically the choices we have to make in this regard? How can we share the burden of these choices with European and international partners, so that our farmers and our industrialists are not penalized compared to their foreign competitors?”

Democracy and citizenship

In what is perhaps the most critical section of his letter, Macron asks citizens how they want to organize and participate in their democracy. He asks:

  • “Should blank votes be recognized? Should we make voting compulsory?”
  • “What is the right dose of proportionality in parliamentary elections for a fairer representation of all political projects?”
  • “Should we, and in what proportions, limit the number of parliamentarians or other categories of elected officials?”
  • “What role should our assemblies, including the Senate and the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, play in representing our territories and civil society? Should we transform them and how?”
  • “What changes would you want to see to make citizen participation more active and democracy more participative?”
  • “Should we associate certain unelected citizens, for example chosen by lottery, to public decision-making?”
  • “Should we increase the use of referendums and if so, who should be in charge?”
  • “What do you propose to improve integration in our nation? When it comes to immigration, once our asylum obligations are fulfilled, do you want Parliament to be able to set annual targets? How can we deal with this lasting challenge?”
  • “How can we strengthen French secularism, in the relationship between the state and the religions of our country? How can we ensure respect of the mutual understanding and intangible values ​​of the Republic?”

In his wide-ranging, 2,300-word letter, Macron outlines his vision for how France can move forward from the yellow-vest protests. Answering these 20 questions is how the process starts, he says: “This is how, with you, I intend to transform anger into solutions.”