Since October 2018, France has been shaken to the core by a spontaneous social movement - the internationally renowned Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests).
Spawned on social media, developed via Facebook groups and online petitions, the movement initially protested against rising fuel taxes, but their demands quickly multiplied to include calls for lower costs of living for the working and middle classes and more economic parity between large cities and rural areas.
As the Gilets Jaunes - who get their name from the mandatory high-visibility vests that French drivers have to have in their vehicles at all times - blocked highways and clashed with the police in cities across France, Saturday after Saturday, politics had to ask itself what it had to do to calm things down.
This is where an unexpected exercise of direct democracy came in.
Organised by the AMRF (Association of French Rural Mayors) which confederates almost a thousand mayors of towns with under 3,500 inhabitants, the “Mairie Ouverte” initiative was launched on December 8, at the peak of the Yellow Vests crisis. The initiative was mainly addressed to the 22 million people who live in rural areas - almost a third of all French citizens.
The mayors of small, provincial towns all over the country placed a notebook in their City Hall asking for complaints and comments from their citizens, to be addressed to the current government. Although the core of the Yellow Vests is to be found in ordinary people coming mostly from rural areas and suburbs, the notebooks were open to every citizen, regardless of their thoughts or participation on the movement.
The collected efforts - over 30 thousands complaints coming from more than 500 municipalities all over France - were handed to the President of the French National Assembly Richard Ferrand on January 15th. They came just as Emmanuel Macron inaugurated his Grand Débat tour, that will bring him all over the country to meet mayors and citizens and listen to their questions and criticism for the next two months.
But what do these messages, both handwritten and printed, that the French wrote to their government really say?
Euronews reached out to all the mayors representing the small municipalities in their corner of France to collect concrete examples of their messages to Macron. A few of them got back to us - we will fill in the map as we receive more responses - sharing the letters they got from their citizens.
As we were flooded with hundreds of complaints, we picked some of the ones we deemed most original, emotive or interesting.
You can discover some of the messages people of all ages in rural France wrote to Macron by clicking on the envelopes on our interactive map. Every envelope corresponds to one of the towns that took part in the "Mairie Ouverte" initiative:
The others touched on a great number of different issues - from a rise of purchasing power and of the minimum salary to a reduction of differences in salaries, from a stronger hand with fiscal fraud and higher taxes on multinational enterprises to large cuts to the perceived privileges of the political class. The laws that sparked the Yellow Vest movement, such as the high fuel taxes, were also mentioned often, but ecology wasn't forgotten either.
Between personal experiences and practical solutions, the messages collected by the “Mairie Ouverte” initiative embraced a plurality of themes. According to data shared by the AMRF, the most discussed issues were social and fiscal justice, political organisation, transport and mobility, democracy, ecology, and employment.
Now, it's up to Macron to pick up the discussion and listen to what his citizens have to say. Some mayors, though, aren't convinced that the 'Grand Débat' organised by the government is going to achieve the purposes it sets out to. Paul Mumbach, mayor of the Alsatian town of Dannemarie, says the Grand Débat looks too "piloted by the power", and that people are therefore probably going to lose their confidence in it. "I'm afraid its results won't be recognised by the people", he added.
But Cédric Szabo, director of the AMRF, sees it as a further opportunity. "The rural world is normally not on the radar of political discussions", he told The Cube. "So the Grand Débat can be another chance for the citizens to say what they really feel and want".