Brexit referendum has torn apart society says Macron

President Macron warned French people of the dangers of poorly-run referendums and fake news yesterday by attacking the UK’s Brexit referendum which he said had ‘torn apart society’.

Speaking at the end of an evening when he made a surprise appearance at a citizens’ debate with gilets jaunes protesters, south of Lyon at Bourg-de-Péage, he said he wants to give more thought to how to use referendums and how to balance representative democracy with chances for direct democracy.

However he said there are dangers with having referendums on complex and important subjects because many people are not well-enough informed and will be influenced by fake news on email groups and social media.

Mr Macron was responding to a question from the public about ‘citizens’ initiative referendums’, one of the demands of the gilets jaunes, which refers to holding referendums on topics that have gained a certain number of supporters from the public.

He started by defending the tradition of representative democracy in the National Assembly and Senate.

“I think you need elected representatives with different political ideas, who will represent you and take decisions. Why? Because difficult decisions are never taken by referendum.

“Because sometimes difficult decisions are not those where people are best-informed. They presuppose debates constructed between people who have invested a lot of time in it – which is the case for your representatives – and a democratic process.

“Constant direct democracy doesn’t help us to clarify debates, sometimes it fundamentally tears us apart.”

However he said he supported ‘citizen consensus conferences’ (conférences de consensus citoyen). “That means that we’re going to ask citizens their opinion, but we’re going to train them. We’re going to spend several hours or sometimes several weekends training people and telling them: here’s the truth and the falsehood, here’s how it works; now you can make an informed decision.

“A referendum isn’t like that. So, I do believe in referendums, in our constitution I’m ready to develop them further, but I don’t think it’s a panacea.”

He added that we have learned from recent referendums in Europe and elsewhere that they are manipulated.

“We’re all surrounded by fake news. And a lot of people are persuaded, in good faith, that what they’re being told is true, when in fact it’s totally false. Because they read it on the internet.

“So before that we need to repair our democracy to rebuild our relationship to the truth. What is the information that has been verified? It’s a real issue. And it’s not your email groups or Facebook sites that hold the truth.

“I see a lot of citizens who no longer have confidence in television or the written press and say ‘I believe this because my email group said it’. But I get these emails too, and sometimes it’s raving lunacy.

“So there’s a whole process of education – and we have to straighten up our institutions, that’s to say our trusted third parties... Our media too, need to reflect on themselves. And we need as a society to think about the status of information.

“Is an image that I capture in two seconds in a room and take out of its context and then send around the world – is it really news? In an age when we will be able to manipulate them more and more. No. If it comes from someone who’s a professional and respects a code of conduct, maybe it has a different value.”

Mr Macron added there are also questions where we need to hear independent scientific expertise, and gave the example of the debate on the use of the chemical glyphosate, saying his job is to guarantee the scientists' independence in this case, not give his own inadequately-informed opinion.

All these issues need to be considered before “rushing into citizens’ initiative referendums”, he said.

He added: “A final thing – make no mistake, in recent referendums foreign powers greatly manipulated the vote. And a referendum is also sometimes an open door to lies. I’m going to give you an example with our British friends.

“They voted for Brexit. There were people in good faith who sometimes had the same anger as yourselves. They said ‘the source of all our evils is Europe, it’s a load of crap’. There were entire buses going by saying you’re going to save – I can’t remember how much now – something like 36billion pounds if you leave. It’ll be done in a fortnight.

“People who voted for Brexit were in good faith, they were angry, they said ‘it’s impossible, this system isn’t fair’. The upshot: it’s being going on for two years now and those who told them to vote Brexit scarpered a couple of weeks later; they didn’t even want to govern. They left. And people are starting to realise that the figures people gave them were totally false. That which they were told could be done overnight was impossible, and that ultimately it was going to cost them.

“Do you think in that context a referendum was a good thing? No, because it didn’t allow for a debate that was well-put-together, transparent and calm.

“It has torn apart a society; it has left a society open to information from outside or terrible manipulations. So – yes to referendums, but well-chosen ones. And yes, if first of all if we know how to become strong democratic societies, with a demanding attitude towards information. A citizen who expresses him or herself on a subject must have worked it through and have trained him or herself so as to be able to understand it well.

“Beware of sellers of dreams who tell you the solution to your anger is referendums every week; I’m afraid that the people who are sometimes manipulated by these miracle ideas don’t have a great deal to gain from it.”

President Macron added however that France should better organise the way it treats decisions made by Parliament or by the citizens. For example he said it is wrong for a decision made by referendum to be overturned by Parliament within a certain period of time, and vice versa.

“What created a sense of malaise was that in 2005 we had a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty which resulted in a ‘no’ vote. Two years later France went back on it by a parliamentary decision.  I think it was a mistake. The people said one thing then two years later we said ‘we’re going to put that right’.”

A possible solution might be that a decision made in one way should not be overturned unless by the same method, or perhaps after a specified number of years, he said.

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