The Next Big Referendum to Shape the European Union

By Linda Wang

Almost three months since it first erupted, the Yellow Vest protests in Paris still rages on. The movement initially began as a protest over the increases in fuel taxes, which would have greatly impacted the rural poor citizens living paycheck to paycheck, but it quickly grew as it tapped into a reservoir of deeply-rooted resentment against the French President, Emmanuel Macron.

Macron was elected on a platform of promoting economic growth through pro-business measures. Once in office, he executed major labor law reforms and changes in the tax law, policies which many perceived to be favorable for the rich. Macron was able to quickly enact these policies thanks to his party’s majority hold over the Parliament, but he gained the reputation of a stubborn, elitist politician who refused to listen to dissenters. Over time, this brewed feelings of frustration among the French people. Additionally, both France’s cultural inclination to stage revolutionary protests -  demonstrated in the famous 1968 French student uprising and the country’s frequent protests - and the wave of populism passing through many Western nations contributed to this intense and drawn-out protest.

Since its start, the Yellow Vest movement has been largely leaderless and decentralized in their demands. Though Macron initially responded to the Yellow Protest movement by drawing back the proposed fuel tax increases, this did not seem to extinguish the riots. It has since transformed into a general anti-government protest with no clearly defined agenda, which makes it even harder for Macron to respond to. [1] Some speculators have commented that the riots are a display of frustration towards an unresponsive and out-of-touch government. Protestors have often resorted to violence and the flares of police violence have only added fuel to the fire.

In response to the protests, Macron inaugurated a country-wide “grand debate” (le grand débat) to allow citizens to air their grievances for the next two months at local town hall meetings. [2] [3] Macron is also going on a tour of the country to meet 600 mayors and hear their concerns. These actions, in part, are an effort to change Macron’s image into that of a more understanding and empathetic leader. This restoration of his public image would allow Macron to hopefully calm the anti-government sentiments and improve his approval rates, which were at a historic low of 23% last December. [4]

Recently, rumors being circulated in French domestic newspapers have hinted at the possibility that a nation-wide referendum would take place on May 26th this year. [5] If true, this would be the first French referendum in 14 years, and it would occur on the last day for EU citizens to vote for the European Union Parliament elections. Some have speculated that this could be a strategic move to bring greater interest and turnout to the EU polls, which traditionally have a much lower turnout than national polls.

The EU Parliament is the only directly-elected governing branch of the European Union and receives much less attention from the media, politicians, and EU citizens than its national counterparts. This is despite the fact that it is one of the main legislative bodies of the entire multinational union. This could be because EU citizens feel more disconnected to the EU governing branches than national governments do.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right party and Macron’s political opponent from the 2017 presidential election, says that this is instead an attempt to distract the French public from the EU elections. Her party and political coalition intend on gaining seats in the European Parliament during this year’s elections. [3]

Though the much-reported and much-speculated referendum is not confirmed by the government, it is reported that the referendum may contain questions regarding major policy changes such as limits on the number of terms lawmakers can serve and reducing the number of lawmakers.

While the practicalities of the rumored French referendum are being considered, there are additional political concerns about staging such a referendum. It bears resemblance to the 2016 “Brexit” national referendum, a globally-infamous display of populist politics which resulted in the currently-gridlocked British Parliamentary negotiations over the EU exit deal. The British national referendum was commenced by the Prime Minister David Cameron in order to quell rising populist sentiment and re-legitimize his position but instead had the opposite effect.

France also has a troubled history with national referendums. In 2005, after the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty was passed, France called a referendum on whether or not it should ratify the newly proposed European Constitution. The result was a shocking and unexpected victory for the “No” campaign, with 55% of voters choosing to reject the Lisbon Treaty, plunging the entirety of the 25 countries in the European Union into an uncertain future. [6]

There is also concern that the proposed referendum does not truly address the issues of the Yellow Vest movement protestors. The questions that are rumored to be a part of the referendum involve institutional restructuring that may not address the main crux of the concerns that the French citizens have, amongst which are high unemployment, stagnant economic growth, and low wages.

The highly-speculated French referendum could affect the outcome of the European Parliament election, thus shaping the future of the EU for the next five years, and may either quell or fuel the fires of the Yellow Vest movement. Either way, it could be the next referendum to rock the European Union. ‘

Linda Wang is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is pursuing a major in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).

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