Waserman: What the Convention has brought to us is different from what government or Parliament would have produced

Sylvain Waserman is a representative from Bas-Rhin and the vice president of the French National Assembly. He is a member of Macron’s party, LREM. He published the following piece in the French Huffington Post.

The Climate Convention: a democratic innovation or a sign of crisis of the representative system?

The citizen climate convention tests our democratic model. It was born in an atmosphere of general skepticism, or even worse, a certain condescension. We kept hearing that sortition has no democratic legitimacy and that its place is only in the history books under the heading “Ancient Greece”.

Today the situation is quite the opposite: no one doubts anymore the value of the proposals formulated, and the only question is about knowing how those proposals will be implemented and if they are going to be implemented in full.

When the so-called “climate and resilience” bill arrived at the Assembly, numerous deputies expressed irritation and some opined that this signaled another decline in the status of Parliament and a negation of the role of its members.

Following the example of the citizen members of the Convention

Let’s be clear: what the Convention has brought to us is different from what either the government or the Parliament would have produced in a classic legislative process. Surely it is more audacious and truly different. Let’s have the humility to recognize that and the intelligence to see that as a virtue rather than as an affront. The best example is the text for the amendment of the first article of the Constitution. Few among us would have spontaneously proposed the bold formulation adopted by the Convention: “France guarantees the preservation of the environment and of biodiversity, and the struggle against global warming”. The term “guarantee” is vertiginous and could open the door to questions of constitutional priorities, leading to complex issues and giving constitutional judges wide discretion in invalidating laws which would not respect this guarantee. Indeed: Nicolas Hulot, a sincerely committed environmentalist, had proposed constitutional reforms that are judicially less risky and more convenient legalistically, such as “France acts in order to” or “committed to promote”.

In short, the parliamentary logic has taken hold of him. This logic is opposite to the audacity of the citizens which we must recognize and which mandates that we face our responsibilities. Either we heed the words of judicial experts who would like to dissuade us by playing up the risks (as do the scientists regarding the management of the coronavirus pandemic), or we take the risk and make a strong and willful political decision. This is what we are facing: making a decision which is neither comfortable nor judicially simple, but which aims at achieving the planetary goals and our historical responsibility on this subject. It is this that the citizens of the Convention remind us, citizens who have freed themselves from an understanding of the situation which is too judicial and too prudent.

But the democratic innovation does not end there. The elected in their daily actions are increasingly trying to get citizens involved. They are even constructing public policies together with them. This is the case with mayors who involve residents in every city planning project, but also the case with deputies who involve citizens from their districts when they write bills or vote on them. All of that employs the same logic: creating direct links between citizens and public policy decisions and the bills voted on in Paris. The Citizen Convention takes this a step further: if the text it proposes for a constitutional amendment is adopted, the logic of direct linking will have been carried out to its culmination, having the citizens modifying the top level of our rules, the law of laws.

Challenging our democratic models

The Citizen Convention, both in the substance of its contribution as well as in its form, challenges our democratic models. We need to have the clarity as parliamentarians to think about it as a positive citizen involvement which gives us an unembellished message which moves us all forward. If representative democracy were doing well, if our democratic models were not in need of questioning and rethinking, if the gulf between the elected and the citizens were not as large, then the Citizen Convention could have been considered as a mere anecdote. But this is not the case.

To wrap ourselves in our parliamentary pride would be an error. Closing our eyes to the democratic innovations which strengthen democracy rather than weaken means blindness. As parliamentarians, we should accept that anything which amplifies the voices of citizens is positive.

Let us have no fear. Let us not forget that our parliamentary freedom is unconstrained and that it is in the name of this freedom that we can welcome these new voices of citizens for what they are: an opportunity for our democracy.

5 Responses

  1. having the citizens modifying the top level of our rules, the law of laws . . . anything which amplifies the voices of citizens is positive.

    But which citizens? Why privilege the views of a tiny and (effectively) self-selected group? Members of parliament are also citizens, but they are the ones chosen by a plurality of citizens to “amplify their voices”. They also have the responsibility of trading ecological concerns with the myriad of other factors that a government has to deal with.

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  2. Keith,

    I think a flaw in your viewpoint is an overly formalistic analysis of what makes one group more of an elite than another. The members of the citizens’ assembly are distinguished from their fellows by a) having volunteered and b) having spent the deliberation period deliberating with one another and producing a high-profile set of recommendations. The elected, on the other hand, have long careers in office, are subject to the pressures of reelection and thus media power, and above all are insiders of longstanding political organisations, which select, organise, and discipline them in the pursuit of power. One of these groups is closer to the authentic ‘voice of the people’ than the other, and we can acknowledge this without denying that the CCC model was imperfect and that other systems can do better.

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  3. My claim is that the people should choose who to give their voice to; whereas the general will is manifested through (silent) voting in the general assembly (which could be a microcosm of the people). The pressures of re-election and media scrutiny (if sufficiently plural) are the best way of ensuring that the voice accurately reflects public preferences. The notion that the people have an “authentic” voice is a romantic, or even mystical, delusion.

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  4. Like Oliver, I acknowledge better design is wanted, but I dispute Keith’s assumption that because someone was elected they were meaningfully “chosen” by the population. If one is concerned about potential distortion or bias arising from self-selection, there is no greater realm of self-selection than in party nomination for candidacy. Not only must a candidate self-select, but must also be subject to distortion and bias resulting from the process of working their way up within the party — doing favors, making deals with other partisans, wealthy donors, special interest lobbyists, etc. Admittedly, the U.S. is extreme where there are typically only one or two candidates for most offices (in many or even most local elections, incumbents run unopposed), but even in multi-party proportional representation election systems, the self-selection and corruption distortion of elected representatives dwarfs any distortion resulting from people accepting or declining to serve when drawn in a democratic lottery. In summation, yes — the possible CCC bias from lack of mandatory service (and small size) should and can be overcome through improved design and procedures, while no amount of electoral reform can fix the distortion and unrepresentativeness of elected members.

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  5. Yes Terry, we all know that, but at least folk get to choose between the self-selected oligarchs, and parties will be motivated to choose candidates that electors will vote for. At least that’s how it works in theory, but it strikes me as better than relying on mystical notions of the “authentic voice of the people”

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