Civic assemblies to the rescue? Some results from France
If you think that the electoral victory of France’s centrist president Emanuel Macron against the far-right populist Marine Le Pen is “saving democracy,” — you are thinking too easy. On a higher and more complex level, the case is that democracy in France, like in many other parts of Europe, is having many problems.
For example, in the case of Brexit, almost around 1/3 of all UK voters did not vote during the referendum. While in Sweden, one of the oldest democratic nations, around 1/4 of young men as 16–29 can think and feel that having a “strong leader” (aka dictator, authoritarian) would be a good thing.
Back to France, in her article about the current situation with democracy in France, analyst Sophie Conrad working at the Institute Montaigne think-tank, writes the following regarding the recent developments such as the formation of civic assemblies by Macron’s government:
- The Great Debate was launched in 2019 by Emmanuel Macron, in the context of the Yellow Vest crisis. The process consisted of open citizen debates across the country, presented as a nation-wide exercise in participatory democracy, to find solutions to the crisis.
- The Citizens’ Convention for Climate was a citizen assembly held in 2019 and 2020 in response to the Yellow Vest crisis. The 150 randomly selected citizens gathered to discuss the reduction of France’s carbon emissions.
- 1.5 million French citizens participated in the Great Debate. It resulted in 10.000 local meetings and 2 million online submissions. The estimated cost of organizing the debates was €12 million.
- 149 proposals were put forward after the Citizens’ Convention for Climate. Some of these proposals were put forward to Parliament, though the fact that not all of them were included generated frustration among the members of the Convention.
- According to the The Political Trust Barometer, as of February 2021, 35% of the French expressed having faith in their political institutions, as opposed to 57% of Germans.
- The most recent local elections of June 2021 were marked by low turnout, with a historic abstention rate of 65.7%. Voter turnout has declined for several decades, but the scores for 2020 and 2021 have been particularly striking. It remains to be seen whether this trend will be confirmed or not in the 2022 presidential election.
Some additional insights
- The emergence of Emmanuel Macron and the En Marche movement seemed to signal a political renewal in France. Unlike in 2007 and 2012, neither the Socialist Party (PS) nor The Republicans (LR) managed to get their candidates through to the second round of the presidential election. Worse still, in 2017 they could only gather 26% of votes in the first round, as opposed to 56% in 2012.
- The President’s relatively young age and his stated commitment to modernizing certain political practices raised many hopes for a renewed political dynamic.
- Nevertheless, Macron pursued a solitary exercise of power, in part encouraged by the highly presidentalist design of French institutions, then reinforced by the Yellow Vests and the Covid-19 crises.
- While new consultation methods have been put in place (the GND, the Citizens’ Convention for Climate), they have been more of a response to some of the crises that have marked the presidential term than part of an overall plan to revitalize representative democracy practices in our country.
Civic assemblies are not an entirely new idea when looking at the history of democracy. What is new is that such procedures can be organized more efficiently and inclusive today, thanks to digital and decentralizing technology such as blockchain and social platforms.
However, one of the most important things is that civic assemblies are created “bottom-up” and from local levels, and not by government institutions and in a top-down matter. People can be more civic when creating their initiatives and procedures.
It is also important to discuss which topics can and should be decided by a certain population at a certain level, partly since there are global problems and challenges, and partly because majority positions are not always in line with democratic values such as for example, proposals to ban religious objects and prevent refugees from receiving security.