French citizens’ convention ‘direct democracy’ does not work

Strong leadership is required to revitalise policies in France and not ‘gimmicks’, as French Citizens’ Climate Convention vote on government proposals

1 March 2021
By Nabila Ramdani

“Power to the People” is a political slogan that has taken on increased significance over the last few years.

Populist movements involving millions of aggrieved citizens have been hugely successful, whether campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union or – in France’s case – to scrap green taxes on fuel.

It was the gilets jaunes who achieved the latter concession from President Emmanuel Macron within a few weeks of their formation in late 2018. They took to the streets calling for economic justice, specifically in regard to the rocketing price of petrol and diesel. Riots ensued, and Mr Macron responded to them with both heavy-handed crackdowns and by going on TV to announce spectacular but simplistic policy U-turns.

Direct democracy thus became the rallying cry of the emboldened gilets jaunes. Like many Brexiteers, and Donald Trump supporters in the USA, they argued that they were being betrayed by out-of-touch mainstream politicians, and wanted a greater say in key political decisions.

There was even talk about putting absolutely every policy initiative to a referendum. The idea was that online technology now allows everybody to vote instantly, even if they have no knowledge of the subject on the ballot form. All that matters is that everybody has a say.

Mr Macron’s administration was not ready to go this far, but it did create a ground-breaking Citizens’ Climate Convention (CCC) – an assembly made up of 150 ordinary people to offer homespun environmental advice.

Read more: France’s Citizens’ climate body explained

The first, set up in 2018, focused on reducing greenhouse emissions. Members were chosen to broadly reflect the makeup of French society, as they discussed issues including the kind of carbon taxes that the gilets jaunes were so vehemently opposed to.

'Ecological transition is complicated for scientists and other specialists at the best of time, and thus not an obvious topic for a democratic experiment'

The concept was that the CCC would act in the same way as a traditional jury in a criminal or civil court – providing their common sense and real-life experience, rather than any formal qualifications or professional status. Anything they decided would be submitted to Parliament or a national referendum, and might lead to legislation.

If all this sounds monumentally ambitious, it’s because it is. Ecological transition is complicated for scientists and other specialists at the best of time, and thus not an obvious topic for a democratic experiment.

Even if participants turn out to have a miraculous talent for tackling the greenhouse effect, who is to say their approach is any better than the 67million plus French citizens excluded from the Convention?

'Predictably, many if not all of the decisions taken by the CCC were destined for the dustbin anyway'

Proposals were rejected outright, or else watered down so much that they became meaningless.

Mr Macron has also announced that a 35-citizen panel will assist the medical committee rolling out the coronavirus vaccine – a collaboration that also sounds absurd considering the scientific complexities involved.

Polarising issues can certainly be loosely dealt with in the short term. People can vote “Yes” or “No” for Brexit, or express their opinion as to whether carbon fuels should be taxed more. But such binary judgements in no way represent the realities of implementing them. In the long term, you need highly accomplished technocrats who are guided by equally competent politicians, ideally ones who have been elected.

France is missing national targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb climate change. Delays are becoming critical, and this is causing even more ecological damage. Strong leadership is required to revitalise policies, and not gimmicks aimed at changing the nature of how France is governed under the guise of giving “power” to the unelected masses.

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