Will the Citizen's Assembly on climate solve France's democracy crisis?
France’s yellow vest protesters, who are still in the streets after 65 weeks, have focused the country on the question of democracy and representation. The government organised a national debate in January 2019 to address the grievances. But it did not satisfy the demonstrators. Since October, a Citizen’s Assembly has been convened, to address climate change. Will this experiment with participative democracy work in France?
When President Emmanuel Macron announced a national debate, the Grand Debat, in January 2019, after the start of the Yellow Vest protests, Mathilde Imer was optimistic. A founding member of the Gilets Citoyens (the citizen vests), a collective that came out of the Yellow Vest movement and the climate marches, she was hoping that the debates would mean more input from everyday people in how the country was run.
She grew disillusioned by the lack of commitment by the government to what came out of the debates. Today she’s on the governing committee of the Citizen’s Assembly on the climate, because the government is behind it.
Citizen’s Assemblies have been used all over the world to try to revive trust in the democratic process. The Ireland Citizen’s Assembly in 2016/17 considered several constitutional questions, including abortion, and the debates of the 100 members framed the May 2018 referendum on the issue.
The French Citizen’s Assembly on the climate is made up of 150 people, chosen at random, though sorted on demographic data (age, gender, profession, geographic location, etc.) to best represent France as it is.
For seven weekend sessions, starting in October 2019, they are to address various aspects of life in France that are affected by or affect the climate, from housing and food production, to transportation and consumption.
The end result will be up to them: The assembly can propose laws to parliament, propose government measures, or ask for referendums on certain measures.
Imer spoke to RFI about this new form of participatory democracy for France, and what it means for citizen’s participation in decision-making.
RFI: This is the first time that France is attempting a Citizen’s Assembly. This is not usually how things are done in France. Do you see a culture shift?
Mathilde Imer: The national level in France is quite monarchic. [France has a strong president, and a parliament that is not proportionally elected.] And that’s why we have, in France, but also in a lot of European countries, a crisis of democracy.
Remember, the Yellow Vest crisis is a crisis of democracy. People are out in the streets to say they have no voice in parliament, or at least the impression they have no voice. That’s why they were calling for a RIC, referendums initiated by citizens [to vote on overturning laws and revoking politicians mandates, among others].
RFI: In January 2019 the government opened what it called a Great national debate, following the start of the Yellow Vest movement in November 2018. It was a series of surveys and public meetings to address the concerns of the protesters. Why do you trust the Citizen’s Assembly more?
MI: There is a commitment from the government on the results of the Assembly, which there was not from the debate.
French President [Emmanuel Macron] has publically said he will present the proposals from the Assembly to parliament without filters. In the mission letter signed by the Prime Minister, you can also see the same commitment.
Also, this is a deliberative process. There are what we’ve called contradictory debates, where outside experts with different points of view [scientists, industry representatives, NGOs, etc.] speak to the participants. After these presentations, the members of the Assembly debate amongst themselves, which helps them chose what to do on the various measures.
Then they will decide what they want to propose to the French government and the French people.
RFI: This has been going on for several weeks, and there are still more sessions to go. What has been the most surprising part of the process?
MI: I’ve been impressed by the engagement of the members. Some arrived quite sceptical. They thought it was a joke, and were also quite against the French president, who came up with the idea.
But they are playing the game. They’re working a lot, both during the sessions and between them. They’re meeting mayors, farmers, to get ideas and promote the Assembly. Also to learn about what climate change means for French citizens.
Because at the end of the first weekend [in October], which was focused on the scientific diagnosis of climate change, most of the participants said they had been aware there was a problem, but did not realise it was so urgent.
And this is very important, because I think it means that French people are not aware of the extent of the problem. This means we have to create a big conversation, to make sure that the propositions that the Citizen’s Assembly will come up with will get the support of the French citizens.
This is why I think referendums are important.
RFI: So you are hoping for referendums to come out of this process, not just proposals of laws for parliament to vote on?
MI: Personally, yes, because I think it’s the way to create this conversation.
A referendum involves all citizens voting on propositions made through deliberation by 150 citizens, representative of the society. That means it’s a combination of their work and the French population.
RFI: But referendums can be very tricky, as we've seen with Brexit, for example.
MI: I think the big difference with the Brexit referendum is first, the questions will be coming from citizens, and not from the president or government. And second, there is a deliberative process before.
Of course, referendums are risky. But at some point, with the climate urgency, we maybe have to take risks.
RFI: As somebody who believes in citizen participation, democracy, and as a climate activist, who, I imagine is by nature, maybe a bit sceptical, have you embraced this process as the way forward for participative democracy in France?
MI: I think it’s a great solution to the climate and democratic crises we face. But there is one condition: That the government respects its engagement. And we will see that only at the end of the process.
I think a Citizen’s Assembly can be a way to reconnect citizens with their lawmakers. And that's quite important. It's a way to update our democracy. Because our democratic system is based on a methodology that was created two centuries ago.
Updating our democracy will take into account first, the fact that citizens are much more educated than before. And second, they are used to participating though social networks. So it’s hard to say today, ‘You vote every five years and that's it’. So it's a way to update the democracy.
Listen to this interview in the Spotlight on France podcast.
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