Macron's 'grand debate' comes under fire from French opposition

French president's letter to the public criticised for ruling out discussion of reforms such as the wealth tax scrap.

    A day before French President Emmanuel Macron is due to kick off a promised grand national debate, the government and opposition are quarrelling over its content.

    In a 2,300-word letter addressed to the French public published late on Sunday, Macron wrote that the public consultation will discuss the nation's "essential questions" in order to quell the yellow vest protest movement that has been taking place since mid-December.

    "For me, there are no forbidden questions," Macron wrote, but warned that the government "will not go back on the measures taken" to lower taxes and encourage investment.

    Responding to Macron's letter, the leading radical-left candidate for this year's European elections has accused Macron of wanting to rule out "the questions that are uncomfortable".

    Macron wanted to take questions such as restoring a wealth tax partly abolished last year off the agenda, Manon Aubry of the La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party told broadcaster BFMTV on Monday.

    The right-wing and far-right opposition also criticised Macron's debate plans. 

    The centrist, pro-business president was due to officially launch the debate on Tuesday in a meeting with mayors from across the northern Normandy region.

    The consultation process, to be held from January 15 to March 15, is the latest step in Macron's attempts to placate the yellow vest protesters. It was announced in mid-December along with a package of tax and spending measures aimed mainly at lower-paid workers and pensioners.

    So far his concessions appear to have had limited impact, with tens of thousands of protesters - many wearing the bright yellow safety vests that have become the movement's symbol - again taking to the streets in Paris and other cities on Saturday.

    'President of the rich'

    The largely leaderless movement, initially launched to oppose planned fuel tax hikes, has broadened its demands to issues to do with the cost of living and more direct forms of democracy since the fuel tax hikes were scrapped by the government.

    Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure also called on Twitter for a referendum on the reinstatement of the wealth tax, replaced in Macron's first budget by a tax only on real estate wealth.

    The tax change was a Macron campaign promise aimed at increasing investment by the wealthy but it has made it harder for him to shake off accusations from the left that he is the "president of the rich".

    Al Jazeera's Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said that the protesters feel they don't have enough of a say in the way France is run.

    "They feel that their government is part of this metropolitan elite that is out of touch with their concerns," Butler said.

    "There are many protesters who say this is nothing more than a PR exercise because they say the letter doesn't detail how this information is going to be collated and how it is going to be used."

    Many people are wondering what the point is, since Macron has made it clear he won't discuss old reforms such as changing the speed limit and scrapping the wealth tax, Butler explained.

    "Those are very controversial and unpopular reforms with many of the yellow vest protesters. For them, they are saying that this debate is already off to a bad start," Butler said. 

    Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire defended the government's position on Monday, insisting that France was "well behind" in innovation and the digital economy, and needed to encourage investment.

    The government's approach of reducing taxation on capital wealth was "not in order to give presents to anyone, but to allow us to relaunch innovation in our country and to succeed in the economic war we are currently facing," Le Maire argued.

    Le Maire said the key question to be answered in the debate was: "What public spending are you prepared to cut down so that we can reduce your taxes?"

    "Our taxes are too heavy and too numerous," Le Maire said in a New Year's speech to the press.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies