I’m sure you’ve heard the old bromide attributed to Charles de Gaulle, who wondered how it was possible to govern a country like France, with its 246 different kinds of cheese.
These days, Emmanuel Macron is discovering the complexity de Gaulle was talking about as he confronts the myriad demands of his constituents in an effort to mollify the “gilets jaunes,” or “yellow vest” movement.
He’s calling it Le Grand Débat – the Great Debate. A chance over the next two months for everyone in France to get their gripes off their chests.
Shortly before Macron’s visit to Normandy to launch Le Grand Débat, I received a lecture on “individualism” from a yellow-vested protester at a roundabout known colorfully as the Rond-Point des Vaches – the Roundabout of Cows. (A side note: in France, “la vache!” is a mild curse, as well as a metaphor for obedient taxpayers who are constantly being pushed around and milked).
“No one is in charge here,” protester Olivier Bruneau, a 42-year-old factory worker, told me. “But everyone has a reason for joining in the movement.” Welcome to Normandy.
The Rond-Point des Vaches has been occupied continuously from the very beginning of the Yellow Vest movement by “individualists” huddled around burning piles of wooden transport pallets. Each has a slightly different set of reasons for being here.
As Denis Lacorne, senior research fellow at the prestigious Sciences Po, told me, “The Yellow Vest protests create a kind of artificial, but real, solidarity among protesters. They’re isolated in their rural settings and suddenly they meet people like them, make friends and have a good time.”
Why here? I asked Bruneau. Well, he patiently explained, it is a place of maximum visibility for trucks passing from the coast through Normandy to other parts of France and Europe – traffic that the protesters can easily block from time to time, creating impressive traffic jams.
And as the protesters wreak havoc, they also spread the movement by explaining to one driver after another how aggrieved they are … and encouraging them to put their own yellow safety vests in the windows of their cabs in solidarity. This is one protest that is wonderfully easy to join – take out the safety vest everyone is obliged to have in their vehicle and the movement spreads.
What’s more, who could be against a movement in which the chief complaint is the decline in buying power? Is there anyone in France who could be in favor of that? And few would disagree that the far-off Paris government seems indifferent to the financial plight of those in the countryside. The response from the top has been slow – and, some say, condescending. “Let them eat cake” had its origins here, after all.
President Macron chose Bourgtheroulde, a small town of 3,800 inhabitants, just down the road from Le Rond-Point des Vaches to kick off his Great Debate.
It was the start of two months of talking over the concerns of the little guy; the President hoping, perhaps, to head off further protests by either addressing or appearing to address these concerns. Two months to search for a national consensus. And in spite – or, perhaps, because – of that individualism Bruneau talked about, the French are masters at building consensus.
You see it everywhere, from the town hall to the workplace. If you want things to move along smoothly, you don’t just issue orders from the top down but patiently find agreement and commonality from the bottom up.
This was the reason for the trip to Normandy, the reason the President met with the local mayors, who are more in touch with those on the ground and in the streets. For centuries before anyone ever conceived of Le Grand Débat, mayors in France have maintained “complaint books” in their town halls so average citizens could come in and write down what’s bugging them.
Mayors have collected thousands of different grievances since the Yellow Vest movement began and many brought them along to share with Macron.
The President came to listen – perhaps because he knows that, in France, when you give everybody a chance to express themselves, it is much more difficult for them to later turn around and disown the collective decisions. They become part of a consensus built by the President rather than one constructed by the yellow vests.
The only problem for Macron is that in France these days there are at least as many complaints as there are cheeses.