Testart on democracy, democratic debate and citizen power, Part 1

Jacques Testart, a prominent French biologist, is a long-time advocate for citizen power, especially as it concerns control of science-related issues. His work in this area stretches back decades. In 2002 Testart co-founded the Association for Citizen Sciences. In a 2017 interview (Le Comptoir, Part 1, Part 2), parts of which are translated below, Testart discusses democracy, public debate, and citizen control of science.

Science, such as economics, could be a carrier of truth because of its neutrality. However, among other examples, the basic axiom of the Work Law forced through, against the opinion of millions of workers affected, rests on a certain “scientific” concept of economics. This law is a good demonstration that this supposed neutrality which economics maintains is in fact such in the eyes of the minority in power alone. When the social contract is under stress, when the decision-makers prefer Capital over the people, it may be necessary to try and consider about how it is put together, in order to be able to improve democracy. Jacques Testart, formerly a research biologist and “father” of the first French test-tube baby, now devotes his time to this goal, notably through the Association for Citizen Sciences. With this in mind, he has recently published “Rêveries d’un chercheur solidaire“, “L’humanitude au pouvoir – Comment les citoyens peuvent décider du bien commun” and “Faire des enfants demain“. We went to meet him. In the first part we discussed the collapse of democracy, in which the flag barriers of Truth are thoroughly involved. The means for making democracy work are discussed in the second part.

Le Comptoir: We hear here and there that democracy is experiencing a “crisis” of representation. Due to the professionalization of politics, the elected are no longer (if they ever were) really representative of their voters, but are rather members of a political-media-financial oligarchy. What do you think?

Testart: That is obvious, yes. The problem is knowing if those who occupy the leadership circles are leaders or representatives. They consider themselves to be leaders because they are elected, and therefore have popular support. But originally, the rules of the game were aimed at – and things must get back to this – them being only representatives. They ability to initiate during their term should be limited by their initial mandate, accounting for unexpected developments. In no case should they be allowed to take decisions that do not conform to the promises for which they were elected. I believe this is a really fundamental point. It is this which dispirits a lot of people, politically, and leads them to abstain. It lead to the rise of the “everything is corrupt” attitude on which the extreme right prospers.

Le Comptoir: May we say that this crisis of representation is also due to an appalling lack of debate regarding issues regarding which there is a consensus among experts in media? I am thinking specifically regarding assisted reproductive technology and the barrage of articles published daily about new “advanced” technologies, presenting all manner of gadgets and announcing “revolutions” to come, from self-driving cars to the bionic prostheses.

Testart: In order to change the fact that we are not in a truly democratic regime, it would be necessary to have “democratic debates”. That is the magic recipe. To the point where there is an institution – the national commission for public debate – whose objectives are defined by law, which organizes public debates. It organizes hundreds of debates every year, primarily on local matters, and sometimes, although rarely, organizes national debates on important issues. There is a mythology of public debate because today it is one of those rare occasions where the population can express itself. However, I believe that even if we have more of this, it would not make any real change.

The “public debate” in essence is a situation where those in the know come to explain their points of view and to respond to questions by the ignorant public. There is no training of the participants and so sometimes the “debates” can revolve around idle suggestions. This is a nice institution, but if we want to devise policy, it is weak tea.

I advocate that we take the people seriously, provided that they are receive training. That may appear a little paternalistic, but the idea is that they really know what it is that they decide, that they have received for-and-against information.

A referendum is somewhat similar. It is an opinion poll, but at the level of the entire population. If it is national then it is of the whole country, if it is local then it is in a specific area. While there is specific information about a topic, it is little more than an opinion poll. That was the case at Notre-Dame-des-Landes and that was the case, most blatantly, with the 2005 referendum on the European constitution. At the local level, the government can define the area of the referendum based on preliminary opinion polls to guarantee the result that suits it. While at the national level the government is sometimes surprised or disappointed with the results, it can maneuver so that they are ignored.

To go back to your initial question, “should we have more debates?”, the answer to that is no, not in the form in which they exist today in France, and not in the way the law sets. It is very good for established power because it avoids the chaos of movements but in all it is pretend-play. It is necessary to completely change the rules.

One Response

  1. […] This is the second part of a translation of a 2017 interview in Le Comptoir with Jacques Testart, a prominent French biologist, and long-time advocate for citizen power. The first part is here. […]

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