April 8, 2019 / 2:02 PM / 3 months ago

Macron's Great Debate shows need to cut taxes faster, says French PM

PARIS (Reuters) - French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said that after three months of public debate it was that clear tax cuts must be speeded up to quell the widespread anger over high living costs that has fueled anti-government protests.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe leaves after his speech during the presentation of the "Great National Debate" findings, called to quell the anger of French "yellow vests" movement, at the Grand Palais in Paris, France, April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

In an act of political theater on Monday, Philippe was presenting the findings from two million online contributions and 10,000 hours of town hall debates that President Emmanuel Macron must now digest and respond to with policy moves.

Four broad needs emerged, the prime minister said: renewing ties between Paris and the regions, making the political process more relevant for citizens, responding better to climate change, and easing the tax burden.

“The debate clearly shows us in which direction we need to go: we need to lower taxes and lower them faster,” Philippe said in a speech in the Grand Palace in Paris.

Planned increases to a fuel tax prompted five months of “yellow vest” protests nationwide and the worst rioting Paris has witnessed since the 1968 student uprising, though the discontent swiftly turned into a broader backlash against inequality and an aloof political elite.

More violence in mid-March reminded Macron that putting his reform agenda back on track would not be easy and the unrest could damage his party’s European election campaign.

The “yellow vests” remain an amorphous group with varied demands, including higher salaries, better public services, and more power for voters on policy decisions.

Tight public finances mean Macron has limited wriggle room.

“The French have understood ... that we cannot lower taxes if we don’t lower public spending,” Philippe said.

The debates reinvigorated Macron, who rolled up his sleeves and held forth for up to seven hours at a time with high-school students, mayors and working mothers, as well as intellectuals and philosophers.

Polls showed only a tentative recovery in Macron’s weak popularity, so the stakes are high for him and his prime minister.

New policy measures are yet to be decided and could be put to a plebiscite. The option of a referendum - which has the advantage of responding to the yellow vests’ demand for more people’s votes - remains on the table.

Nonetheless, Ingrid Levavasseur, who pulled out of leading a “yellow vest” list for the European elections because of internal divisions within the movement, doubted the debates would produce meaningful reform.

“I count myself among the skeptics,” she told Reuters

Additional reporting and writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Giles Elgood

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