In a spartan hall in the provincial town of Chateau-Thierry, a tiny group of local citizens was locked in heated, chaotic discussion on how to save France.
As tempers flared, one woman turned to her neighbour and scolded him for badmouthing the local MP as a liar and a charlatan. “Can we refrain from using swear words and insults,” she exclaimed. “I’m entitled to my opinion,” he scowled.
The order of the day was “purchasing power” but it soon became a free-for-all on everything from cronyism and conspiracy theories to immigration. A baby escaped its mother’s arms and started banging a plastic cup on the table. “He’s teething,” she said apologetically.
If this is how Emmanuel Macron envisaged his “great national debate”, launched this week in the hope of quelling two months of yellow vest revolt, then the French president has his work cut out for him.
On Tuesday, he kicked off a series of public forums inviting voters to express their concerns and suggestions on a range of issues from inequality to the difficulties facing rural and small-town France and the environment. The two months of debates will run until March 15, and the president has promised to respond with “a new contract with the nation”.
The hope is to entice yellow vests away from increasingly violent protests in cities and the roundabouts they have occupied for the past two months. What began as a revolt against fuel tax rises by provincial motorists has snowballed into wider outrage at high taxes and the political system.
In Chateau-Thierry, birthplace of fabulist Jean de la Fontaine, some 60 miles east of Paris, locals were torn between a burning desire to have their say and deep scepticism that the entire exercise will come to very little. That mirrored national polls, in which almost of a third of the French say they want to take part in the debates but 70 per cent doubt it will change anything.
“I think we will resolve the problems not around the table but in the street. I don’t believe in Father Christmas. I’m not falling for this great debate,” said Didier, 61, a musician, as thousands of gilets jaunes took to cities around the country for a tenth weekend of demonstrations.
Jacky Danger, 64, a retired butcher, said: “It’s good to meet and it could be good to send our findings to the government but I have my doubts that this is all a smokescreen.”
“We have a president who is pigheaded and self-important,” he said, calling for him to step down. “The yellow vests I know don’t want to take part,” he said. “This will not stop our protests, on the contrary.”
The number of protesters nationwide on Saturday, which police put at 84,000, remained roughly on a par with last weekend.
But in encouraging news for Mr Macron, a government website has already registered 400 voluntary, town-hall-style meetings by mayors, citizens or associations slated for the coming days. From March 1, the government will begin holding “regional citizen conferences” consisting of around 100 people chosen by drawing lots. These will summarise the main findings from the debates and establish concrete proposals for the president’s consideration.
Catherine Doffémont, 64, a retired medical saleswoman, said she was impressed with Mr Macron’s efforts to re-engage with voters and local officials and fed up with yellow vests’ “individualistic demands”.
“There are so many causes for dissatisfaction in France and the yellow vests are channelling all these for different reasons. Most don’t want to come together and talk about it. At least here, we’re talking,” she said.
“If they won’t let us talk about everything, we’ll take our name off the list and leave,” said pensioner Marie Nicoli, 62.
Alain Grumelart, 58, an unemployed graphic designer and president of the moderate “gilets jaunes réflechissants” (reflective yellow vests), said the framework was too restrictive.
“This debate is remote-controlled. They are imposing themes but nobody has the power to order the nation to talk about some subjects and not others,” he said.
His group has already come up with 70 pages of ideas, including radical plans for a sixth Republic where citizens directly vote on laws rather than MPs. “We’re not going to follow the guidelines set up by their boffins. We’ll send the lot and let them deal with it their end,” he said.
Friday night’s talk covered a bewildering array of issues but after three and half hours, they had only managed to agree on one: counting voters who opt for “none of the above” on their ballot papers. “There’s no way we’ll have completed it within two months,” said Mr Grumelart. “In March, Macron’s great debate will end up in the rubbish bin but we’ll keep going with our quiet revolution” he predicted.
“We’re all individuals. We can all make our voice heard. It’s utopian perhaps, but it was about time people woke up. There are so many defeatists. At least this makes people want to fight for something.”