French president Emmanuel Macron has set a new personal record for talking during a public appearance by debating for more than eight hours with intellectuals and scientists.
For two and half months, the 41-year-old has criss-crossed France for town-hall meetings as part of his ‘Great National Debate’, launched as a remedy to the anger seen in the ‘yellow vest’ protests.
Previous sessions had seen him show off his stamina, with the former investment banker fielding questions from voters on issues ranging from hospital closures to foreign policy, often for four or five hours or more.
But on Monday night he surpassed himself talking in Paris for eight hours and 10 minutes, finishing at 02:30am in a room that had slowly emptied of spectators and even participants, some making their excuses before the end.
The title of the debate - ‘the main challenges and future issues that France will be confronted with’ - set the tone for sometimes dense discussions at the presidential palace, which were broadcast on France Culture radio station.
Sixty intellectuals, economists and environmental scientists took part with Macron, who won office in May 2017 promising to speak rarely to increase the impact of his declarations.
The ‘Great National Debate’ was written off by some critics before it started, but it has helped pull the centrist leader out of the worst crisis of his presidency caused by protests which began in mid-November.
A poll published last Thursday by the Elabe survey group showed Macron’s approval rating up eight percentage points since December, with 31 percent of voters having a positive opinion of him.
The ‘yellow vest’ protests started over fuel taxes, but snowballed into a national revolt against Macron’s governing style and pro-business policies.
He has repeatedly defended his record during debate appearances and again made the case on Monday for highly contested tax cuts for the wealthy, which he introduced early in his term.
‘We haven’t sufficiently kept productive capital in France which creates jobs,’ he told the audience.
Around 10,000 meetings were organised nationwide between mid-January and last Friday, when the debate officially finished, with participants encouraged to discuss government policy and make suggestions.
But a group of five political scientists who were asked to guarantee the independence of the debate process regretted last week that Macron had been so personally involved.
With Monday’s discussion he has now joined 11 debates.
‘It was perhaps useful to have the president and the government implicated at the beginning of the process to motivate citizens,’ one of the guarantors, Pascal Perrineau, said on March 12.
But ‘the way in which that has continued, after initially motivating, has depressed participation,’ he added.
Political opponents have accused Macron of camouflaged campaigning ahead of European parliament elections in May, while some have compared him to Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro - Latin American leaders with a famous taste for hearing their own voices.
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