The French citizen convention on the climate: the endgame


Florent Gougou and Simon Persico write in La Vie des idées about the approaching culmination of the French citizen convention on the climate and how its work should be translated into policy. They find the use of a referendum particularly appealing. Also included in the article is the useful chart above comparing along several dimensions the makeup of the French National Assembly to that of members of the convention (which were selected to reflect the makeup of the French population).

Deciding together: The citizen convention on the climate and the democratic challenge

Now that the citizen convention on the climate is drawing to a close, how should the proposals of the allotted citizen be made into policy within the framework of the a democratic process? What place and shape should a referendum take within the political decision-making?

In the weekend of June 19 to 21, the 150 citizens allotted to the citizen convention on the climate will meet for the last time in order to conclude their work. Two essential points will be on their schedule. The first is finalizing the list of proposals that they will hand to the executive, and more broadly to the French people. The second is choosing the legal mechanisms by which a decision would be made regarding those proposals: executive orders, legislation or through a referendum.

[T]o us it seems that from a democratic point of view choosing to use a referendum would be a historical opportunity to conclude to this unprecedented moment of deliberative democracy with a process of direct democracy, through which all the citizens take on questions regarding the climate and social justice.

A process of executive orders would be the most direct option. It is most suitable for decisions on which there was a consensus in the convention. […] Conversely, it is probable that it would not succeed in cases where there were divisions during the convention.

The legislative route is the traditional choice in the Fifth Republic. Its advantage is that it allows handling dozens of measures. Its major risk is that in the process the proposals would be changed. This process involves the largest number of actors. It leaves room for the renegotiation of compromises made during the convention, and it opens the door to the intervention of public actors, but also of private, well-organized actors, whose influence was so far circumvented by the citizen assembly process.

Another shortcoming of the legislative route is regarding the symbolic legitimacy of the decisions. Adopting the proposals by a vote in the parliament makes them just like any other of dozens of law proposals voted on every year.

Despite having been put center-stage by the Gilets Jaunes, the referendum is an option which is risky in the eyes of several political actors due to the plebiscitory practices by which it was historically accompanied. The referendum was used by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle as much as a test of the confidence of the people in the executive as it was for consultation with the sovereign people about the political direction of the nation. […] A referendum being an answer to a question the executive posed, the risk of a “no” answer is great when the president is unpopular – a situation that has become the norm during the Fifth Republic.

Ideally the referendum would be binding and would put to the popular vote multiple proposals having a legally constrained and specific nature, selected with care and with limited influence of the President.

Legally speaking the citizen convention cannot be the initiator of the referendum. Only the president or the parliament can initiate a referendum. However, the president can take great latitude regarding the proposals of the convention. And he can commit not to modify the proposals and take them “unfiltered” – as Macron has indeed promised.

The president can therefore commit to submit to a referendum the questions formulated by the convention without modification, provided that the proposals are formulated in a legally operational manner. Thus, the people would not be responding to the President but rather to the 150 allotted citizens. This would break with the plebiscitory tradition associated with the referendum in France.

[A] binding referendum on several questions which would be posed directly by the convention would in our eyes be the most innovative mechanism and would confer on the decisions taken the greatest democratic and legal legitimacy.

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