The French Citizen Climate Convention: a provisional analysis

It has been about 5 months since the French Citizen Climate Convention has published its proposals, and with acrimony setting in about the de-facto shelving of much of its work, various conclusions are being drawn about the CCC process. As usual, the conclusions almost invariably confirm the existing notions of the analyst. My analysis is no different in this sense: it seems to me that to a large extent each party to the process has played its expected role and thus the outcomes are quite predictable. I will highlight however two points that have been established empirically that should not have been taken for granted regarding how things would turn out.

Here are points about the CCC process that in my opinion are worth noting:

1. The process was launched as a government response to the Gilets Jaunes, a mass movement whose agenda was not just anti-government but also anti-electoralist. A popular initiative process (Referendum d’initiative citoyenne, or RIC) and to a lesser extent sortition were a major part of the discourse of the Gilets Jaunes. The rise of the Gilets Jaunes movement was triggered by what the government presented as environmentalist policy – increasing the gas tax. Thus having a non-electoralist process for generating environmental policy proposals was a direct capitulation to GJ demands. This origin of the body as a direct, stop-gap response to mass protest is very different from the origins of other allotted bodies, such as the Irish constitutional conventions. Such bodies, even if they were in some way a response to public disaffection with the status quo, were constituted in a much more carefully controlled manner by established power.

2. The CCC process followed the emerging standard practices of what may be called the “Citizen Assembly Format”. This format presents a set of ideas and arguments about the way unelected citizens can be involved in setting public policy and an associated set of practices that supposedly provide an implementation of those ideas. This format is inherently disempowering, a very far cry from a sovereign allotted parliament empowered to directly set public policy. However, within the parameters of the Citizen Assembly Format the CCC process was relatively empowering for the citizens. The Convention had a fairly broad mandate, the body was moderately sized, its term of service measured in months (although not full time), and it enjoyed significant media attention.

3. As is typical to those Citizen Assembly Format practices, the appointment procedure for the CCC was opaque. It was carried out by a private company and involved several points at which various types of manipulation could happen. In addition, since the (reported) acceptance rate of offered slots was two thirds (including both “yes” and “unsure”), it may be argued that at best the body represented part of the population. These points were of course raised by critics of the body.

4. Since the entire affair was organized by experts of various stripes and since, inevitably, experts were invited to speak before the CCC, suspicions about the influence of the experts on the proposals of the body naturally emerged. These too were widely voiced by critics.

5. As could be expected, most of the body’s proposals cover well known ground – adopting proposals that have been publicly discussed for a while but were never adopted as policy due to the resistance of some powerful players. Those players were predictably unhappy when those proposals received the backing of the CCC. Those players thus inevitably claimed that the fact that those well known proposals were adopted shows that the body was unable to act independently, that its members were puppets brainwashed by the Green lobby and that it was merely a rubber stamp for the experts who ran it and advised it.

6. The French public largely supported the CCC’s proposals, as well as the CCC process. The potential for manipulation during member selection as well as due to the influence of experts seems to have not deterred the French from putting significant trust in the CCC.

7. It appears that Macron is not going to make good on his promises to implement the proposals of the CCC. The forces that resisted the measures proposed by the CCC before they were CCC proposals continue to oppose them now that they are, and the CCC process (as well as the public’s support for the process and the proposals) was not powerful enough to change the balance of power so as to push them through despite the resistance. The claim that Macron has simply used the CCC process as a way to gain some time and deflect the criticism against him seems therefore credible. Of course, if the CCC somehow produced outcomes that were useful for him and his allies, he would have used those outcomes to bolster his power. This ability to pick and choose makes the whole Citizen Assembly Format problematic since even cases where the proposals of the assembly are adopted this may not ones where the assembly wielded power but rather ones where the assembly happened to reach the results hoped for by the organizers.

8. The CCC members have stepped forward to become an active force in the struggle around the implementation of the proposals. It appears that this involvement is not going to make enough of an impact to actually get their proposals adopted, but the fact that the CCC members have taken on this role at their own initiative is notable.

Points 6 – public support for the sortition-based body and its proposals – and 8 – the involvement of the CCC members in the politics around their proposals beyond their officially delineated roles – are the ones that appear to me to be developments that are of significance. While they are not necessarily surprising, they should not have been necessarily expected either. Both of those points show the potential for allotted bodies to radically democratize society. It may be hoped that sortition will overcome the boundaries of the Citizen Assembly Format and will realize its radical democratic potential.

6 Responses

  1. Yoram,

    the (reported) acceptance rate of offered slots was two thirds (including both “yes” and “unsure”), it may be argued that at best the body represented part of the population.

    That is an order of magnitude higher than is typical for allotted groups — the Sortition Foundation lists an average uptake of 3-4%. If the “reports” are correct then this is surprisingly high, especially given the time commitment for the CCC.

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  2. Keith,

    Yes, the reported rate of acceptance is positively surprising. Yet even the researchers involved in the process couldn’t have access to real, final numbers. The fact that the private company making the invitation calls is reluctant to share these numbers makes me a bit skeptical.

    Yoram,

    Thanks for the interesting analysis! The only point on which I slightly disagree is on perceived legitimacy. 60 % of support is not a lot, especially if you consider that people knew the proposals of the CCC when assessing its legitimacy and that these were very popular proposals. What would be the perceived legitimacy of a CCC making controversial recommendations? And how did people perceive it before knowing its proposals? That would be interesting to know.

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  3. Not sure what “offered slots” means — is this a place in the jury pool or a place on the CCC? If the latter, then how was the jury pool selected? was it a stratified sortition or a quasi-voluntary function? If the latter then I think we would get nearer to the typical 96-97% refuseniks, and the pool would only represent the small number of citizens who would want to be actively involved in such a project — great from a deliberative and/or epistemic perspective, but hopeless in terms of the representation of the whole citizen body (nowhere near the 2/3 claim). Agree with Pierre-Etienne that it only gets interesting when the allotted group comes up with controversial recommendations.

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  4. PE,

    Regarding acceptance rate: While suspicion about reported acceptance rates due to the opaqueness of the selection process is completely justified, I don’t think that a ~50% is particularly surprising. The notion that there is some sort of a “natural” acceptance rate of 3-4% is completely unjustified.

    The acceptance rate for slots to allotted bodies should depend on various factors. A crucial factor is the perceived impact of the body. There is simply no comparison between the CCC and private initiatives such as Fishkin’s. I don’t see any reason that acceptance rate would not be well over 90% in a properly constituted, well-functioning, high-powered body.

    By the way, the story of Angela Brito as recounted in Peter Yeung’s article in The Guardian lends some independent corroboration to the high acceptance rate claim. The fact that the organizers simply notified people that they have been selected and did not see the need to try to impress the importance of the role upon them or even to bother to verify that they are indeed planning to show up shows a lot of confidence in the motivation of the French population to take part in the process. It is unlikely this would have been the situation if the acceptance rate was very low.

    Regarding public support: I find the polls to be very encouraging. First, among the 40% who are on the non-legitimate side, only 10% are in the “not atall” position, while 30% are in the “not really” position, indicating a willingness to be persuaded under the right circumstances. And indeed, I think the “not really legitimate” position is quite justified, given the multiple weighty objections that can be raised in regard to the CCC process. The fact that the public largely supports the body despite those issues shows a lot of openness toward sortition.

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  5. >There is simply no comparison between the CCC and private initiatives such as Fishkin’s. I don’t see any reason that acceptance rate would not be well over 90% in a properly constituted, well-functioning, high-powered body.

    It might be argued that the 2004 initiative by the government of British Columbia to empower a randomly-selected citizen assembly as a democratic alternative for constitution-making and reform provides an exception to this principle (Warren & Pearse, 2008). However, of the original stratified sample of 23,034 only 1,715 opted to be selected, 964 (4% of the original sample) came to the selection meeting and 158 were randomly selected (Goodin, 2008, p. 14), so there is no way to tell the degree to which the final assembly was an accurate microcosm of the whole population (arguably citizens with a proactive interest in political and constitutional issues would be more likely to agree to participate).

    If the CCC appointment process was opaque, it was probably to conceal something broadly similar. It’s nothing to do with private initiatives.

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  6. […] The work of the CCC and the aftermath of its report received scant coverage in the English-speaking media (with the sole exception of Equality-by-Lot). […]

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