Emmanuel Macron addressed a letter today to the French people, inviting them to participate over the next couple months in a national debate on broad themes of public policy.
The first-term president, under pressure from a tax revolt that has raised large issues of governance and national purpose, asks his compatriots to participate in town hall meetings to be organized by mayors, respond to on-line or long-hand questionnaires, and offer original suggestions on topics ranging from the quality of public services to environmental protection.
The exercise, which will not have any legal force, is designed to show, the president stated, that a free society requires an informed and involved citizenry. He proposes that mayors and other officials across the land, supervised but not commanded by an independent government-appointed commission (perhaps an inevitable oxymoron in this sort of thing), organize meetings to discuss taxes, the shape of public authority, environmental questions, which he defines — perhaps revealing a bias, but after all, why not? — as “the ecological transition,” and, fourth, how to revitalize democracy or, in short, give citizenship its full meaning.
It is a vaste programme, as Charles de Gaulle often said, a tall order — and the first president of the Fifth Republic proposed and implemented reforms at many levels of French society. Macron, who is the eighth, is right to recognize that the themes are interconnected.
The revolt of the gilets-jaunes, or yellow vests from their required driving hi-vis haberdashery, began because of an eco-tax: the government decreed a spike in the price of diesel and gasoline as a way to raise revenue to develop environmental-friendly technologies and energy-saving systems.
Teamsters, and others who use vehicles perhaps more than governing elites who get around in chauffeur-driven limos or do not care what it costs anyway, were incensed less about the idea of environmental protection than the seemingly arbitrary way its cost would be paid for.
Governance, the role of the state, the power of the latter’s representatives, quite logically get drawn into the argument. How to decide priorities and how to pay for them?
The argument regularly explodes in France — practically every government since the 1960s has had to face down street rioters calling for its overthrow, or angry farmers dumping their produce on country roads and city streets, or teamsters blocking intersections on national roads, or public service workers paralyzing trains and subways.
Is there something inherent in French political culture, or in the French themselves, that interferes with orderly deliberation and rational decision-making?
Or is there a contradiction inherent in the modern welfare state, or even more broadly, in modern democratic government, that leads to bottlenecks and frustration and anger instead of compromise and give-and-take and deal-making?
France has a certain way of giving historical flourishes to its public debates, but an observer from anywhere else in Europe has but to look in the mirror — or out the window, or at the TV screen — to sense that whatever is going on in the country that gave us barricades and guillotines, it has an unpleasantly nearby smell.
While it would be sentimental to characterize France or Europe generally as being in crisis — both are enjoying eras of peace and prosperity unprecedented in history — still governments are losing the confidence of the governed. Liberal or illiberal, European democracies are getting low marks, perhaps for good reasons.
The most basic reason is that they are, notwithstanding their constitutions, still the descendants of autocratic regimes. The given right rather than the assumed liberty remains the key distinction between the Old and the New worlds. A European government gives its citizens or subjects the right to vote. Americans prohibit their government from denying them such a right, or any other one.
These are deep and, admittedly, theoretical points, of course, and no one would deny the U.S., at the national or local level, often fails to honor its promise; just as one could surely find cases in Europe where local rule is carried on in a liberal way, classical definition and all.
But it is interesting to note that President Macron in his letter, with its clear French prose, could not hide the top-down mental habits of the culture in which he lives. “France is a country unlike any other,” he noted. Surely; and he also suggested the notion of referenda, of which the Swiss and the Californians both make good use and bad, should be on the agenda of the great national debate.
He said, too, that any talk of changing one of his own pet policies — lowered tax rates on higher incomes, which was one of the issues the hard-hit teamsters complained most about — was off the table.
We Americans are much better off in this regard. Disconcerted as we are by the arrogance of Washington gasbags and appalled at the nonsense that they come up with, the money they waste, the distractions and indeed real dangers caused by their chronic dysfunction and absence of civil sense, we know the business, the work, of America continues. And we the people, the people yes, are up to it.