Sicard: Replacing representative democracy with participative democracy is dangerous, Part 2/2

This is the second and final part of a translation of an article by Claude Sicard published in July 2020 in Le Figaro. The first part is here.

In order to put an end to the Gilets Jaunes revolt, Macron embarked in January 2019 upon what he called the “Great National Conversation”. This has consisted of organizing huge meetings in city halls with the participation of mayors and the local elected politicians, and urging the population to share their comments in person in during the meetings or through an online platform. Macron himself made many animated appearances in these meetings all over the country, which usually lasted more than four hours. Macron would take off his jacket and respond to all the questions addressed to him. Meetings took place in more than 10,000 municipalities, and 1.9 million comments were made. The “Great Conversation” was concluded with a press conference on April 25th, 2019. On that occasion Macron said: “I wished to meet you in order to draw the main lessons from the Great National Conversation and to propose to the nation directions for a new way that our citizens are looking for, a new way for our republic”. He has described the Great Conversation as “an unprecedented exercise for contemporary democracies”. This was therefore a mass popular consultation whose goal was to orient the actions of public institutions over the coming years.

That was followed by a second step. Following the coronavirus crisis, on May 25th, the “Health Conference at Ségur”. The crisis required great dedication from health professionals in order to make up for grave weaknesses of our public hospital system. It was therefore necessary to take their many demands into account without any further delay. Macron saw himself as forced to try to address as well as possible those demands, having been the first praise the exceptional dedication of the health personnel during the crisis, going as far as calling the first responders “national heros”. Macron initiated another great consultation, this time among 300 principal actor in the health sector. This was a second exercise, then, in participative democracy. The goal of this consultation was particularly ambitious. The prime minister defined it as follows in his opening speach: “To construct together the future of the hospital, to heal a system that was blocked and impoverished, and build a new health system organization in each territory”. The participants were given an incredibly short period for reforming our public health system: a month and a half at the most.

The third move toward a new democracy is the “Citizen Convention for the Climate”. The task entrusted to this citizen assembly was to “define a series of mesures allowing to attain a reduction of at least 40% in the greenhouse gas emissions between now and the year 2030, in the spirit of social justice”. The size of the body was set at 150 selected by sortition yielding a perfectly representative sample of the French population: 49% men, 51% women, 26% without a highschool degree, 27% retired people, etc. Finally this convention delivered the results of its work after 9 months of work, on June 21st, 2020. Macron has accepted all the proposal that were submitted to him, with the exception of 3 “jokers” which has reserved to himself, leaving 146 mesures to be implemented. Again, then, important decisions regarding the future of the country are made according to a new procedure where the elected representatives of the people find themselves out of the loop. And the policy proposal are generated by simple citizens, anonymous, and not necessarily competent.

These attempts to introduce organized public consultation, without any preparation, into the work of parliament members, carried out in quiet and with the help of experts, appears extremely dangerous and can’t help but cause alarm. It is sufficient to see the results brought so far by the Health Conference at Ségur: these have essentially consisted of endless discussions about raising the salaries of various public sector health workers, without addressing the structural problems of the French health system.

There are 3 major reforms that are necessary in order to improve the nation’s public health system: the complete restructuring of the network of public hospitals, with a drastic reduction of the number of hospitals; then, the elimination of the status of civil servant for the personnel of public health; and finally the reform of the billing-for-service system. In comparison with Germany, France has 3 times too many hospitals, and those hospitals are far too small, and therefore insufficiently equipped with sophisticated equipment; moreover this network inevitably requires very high management costs. And finally it is necessary to switch from a centralized management in Paris to a regional management, as is the case in Germany, with the state only keeping research hospitals. We should also note that a lack of serious studies about the situation in other European countries has brought the discussions about the level of compensation of hospital staff to a standstill, making the affair no more than a power struggle between the leaders of the workers’ unions and the representatives of the state.

Participative democracy is an interesting practice for organizing locally the public space, but it cannot be be in any way a system for decision making in a modern state. At the time of General de Gaulle, there existed something called the “General Planning Commission”: a system which functioned well and to which we owe this brilliant period that some call “les trente glorieuses” (the 30 glorious years). It was not a rigid authority for planning, despite its name, but a body for study and coordination. The preparation of decisions which concerned the future of a country require thorough study, supported by experts, and require relying on men of vision.

Oddly, the observers of the politics in France do not appear to be troubled by this trend of our democracy. The new direction insidiously taken by our President does not raise the smallest criticism. We know that which Ledru-Rollin said in 1849: “I must follow them because I am their leader”. The French will judge who it is they most want as their head of state, in our current presidential system: will it be someone who will have the ability to adopt their views or someone who will have the required lucidity to enlighten them and show them the way?

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