Stunt or useful?: Macron’s new council for democratic decision-making

The National Refoundation Council launches today and is to be followed by a ‘very large national consultation’ in the coming weeks

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President Macron has begun discussions in the new Conseil national de la refondation (CNR) today (September 8) and has announced a “very large national consultation from next week” that will act as a follow up to this event. This could mean holding referendums or public discussions on a series of topics including the environment and other key issues.

The new council, the CNR, is a symbol of a “new method” of political discussion, President Macron said, calling it a way to “revitalise democracy”.

The idea is to bring together various groups of people including political parties, associations, trade unions and citizens to discuss the most important and pressing political challenges.

The government has said that the aim is to introduce more “horizontality” to decision-making during Mr Macron’s second term, and is intended to counter criticism that his government has been too “vertical” and lacked dialogue previously.

The president first announced plans for the CNR in an interview in early June during his campaign for the legislative elections.

Today’s discussions are being held at the Centre national du rugby in Marcoussis, Essonne.

Speakers include the president, the governor of the Banque de France, François Villeroy de Galhau; the president of the Court of Accounts, Pierre Moscovici; and the president of the climate council le Haut Conseil pour le climat, Corinne Le Quéré.

This afternoon, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne will lead a session to kick off certain projects. In a statement, the Elysée said that the event would be “the first multi-day session” of meetings that will become a regular occurrence.

It said: “The aim is to go quickly. We want to start very fast [so that projects] will come into force by 2023.”

Here is what we know about the CNR.

What does the project cover?

So far, the idea appears to be to bring together representatives from the political, economic, and social worlds, as well as citizens chosen by ballot.

Themes up for discussion include:

  • Employment and industrialisation

  • Education and schools

  • Health

  • Ageing well and independence for older people

  • Climate and the ecological transition

  • Water management

  • Transport

The name chosen, and its acronym (CNR), is also symbolic. It is intended to hark back to the French Resistance council (Conseil national de la résistance, also CNR) during World War Two.

President Macron said: “We are in a historic era that requires a profound change of model.” He then appeared to draw a comparison between the war in Ukraine and World War Two.

But political scientist and professor of political science at the University of Paris-I, Loïc Blondiaux, told Le Monde that this was a “dangerous comparison” that “risked a loss of meaning”. He did not expand upon why he thought this, but it can be assumed he meant because drawing parallels between a heroic former council and a modern-day dialogue initiative seems a stretch.

What is the stated aim?

The government has said that the aim is to introduce more “horizontality” to decision-making.

Mr Macron himself said: “People in France are tired of reforms that come from above. [This is] a cultural revolution that starts from the ground up and includes everyone involved.”

Government spokesman Olivier Véran said in July that the CNR would “share problems, objectives, and diagnoses” at local and national level “to consider the implementation of reforms”.

An MP for Mr Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LREM) said: “We wanted to introduce a format that was a little bit disruptive to create a discussion…and transform public politics.”

Who will take part in the CNR?

Confirmed participants include:

  • Presidential party La République en Marche (LREM)

  • MoDem (a LREM partner)

  • Centrist leader, François Bayrou, has been appointed secretary-general and is likely to lead debates

  • Around 50 others invitees, including heads of unions, businesses, institutions, etc. have agreed to join, with some conditions

For example, former PM Edouard Philippe's party, Horizons, will be represented today, but not by Mr Philippe himself, who is currently on a trip to Quebec.

One “close friend” of Mr Philippe’s reportedly told FranceInfo: "Edouard Philippe does not believe in the CNR at all.”

Unions including the CFDT and CFTC, and business associations Medef and CPME said that they would participate, but remain unconvinced of the initiative’s usefulness.

Local mayoral and provincial associations the Association des maires de France, the Assemblée des départements de France and Régions de France had previously declined to take part, but were later convinced by Mr Macron after he met with them on Monday and convinced them that “regular and direct dialogue” would take place.

Perhaps more insightful is the list of people and groups who have decided not to take part. These include:

  • Opposition parties the Rassemblement National, La France Insoumise, Parti socialiste and the French greens Europe Écologie-Les Verts

  • Gérard Larcher, president of the Senate and member of Les Républicains

In a letter to Mr Macron, Mr Larcher said: “I do not think that this council will achieve the revival of democracy that you are hoping for.”

In the opening session today, Mr Macron gave short shrift to those who had not attended. He said: “Those who are absent are always wrong. 52 were invited. 40 are here. The 12 who are not here are wrong.”

Why is the initiative sparking debate?

Critics of the president have questioned the CNR’s usefulness.

Bruno Retailleau, head of opposition group Les Républicains, called it a “Macronist contraption”. Jean-Luc Mélenchon from La France insoumise said it was “season two of blah-blah-blah”. And Hervé Marseille, senator for Hauts-de-Seine said it was “just a thing”.

Political scientist Mr Blondiaux has said that the idea seems to be a "political stunt", and a quick reaction by the president to address criticisms that his is "a form of power that is too vertical and not very transparent".

He added that the “ulterior motive” of the council was “extremely clear”, and that it comes after “poor” previous attempts at participatory democracy by the head of state.

Mr Blondiaux said that the great ‘national debate’, created after the gilets jaunes protests, "had no real impact", and that suggestions from the Citizens’ Convention for the Climate were only partially adopted.

He has condemned the CNR as “a damp squib", and said that Mr Macron’s “promise of consultation and taking into account of society is not credible anymore”.

This is partially due to the fact that ruling party LREM has lost its absolute majority in the Assemblée nationale, and that the chamber has therefore “regained a form of centrality…where opposition and counter-proposals become possible again”.

In this context, Mr Macron’s new CNR could appear to be a desire to “bypass Parliament”, he said.

Mr Blondaux continued to criticise the idea for its “vagueness”, and said that it would still allow the government to “cherry pick…what interests it” and what is “already in line with its strategic goals”.

Senate president Mr Larcher also warned that “the mechanisms of participatory democracy can contribute to enlightening the national representation, but they can in no case replace it".

However, in the CNR’s defence, and in response to Mr Larcher’s refusal to participate, government spokesman Mr Véran said that it was a chance for representatives to "come to share a diagnosis of the situation of our country with the French people".

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