Hugh Pope reports on the French citizens’ assembly on assisted dying

Hugh Pope writes in buergerrat.de on his impressions of the French citizens’ assembly on assisted dying. Below are some excerpts from the piece, with a few of my comments.

On 9 December, France embarked on [an attempt] to find answers to fraught questions around its ban on assisted suicide. As the centre of a national debate on the issue, it convened 185 people, randomly selected from all over the country and its overseas territories, to research, discuss and propose answers to the question: “Is the framework for end-of-life support suited to all situations or should changes be introduced?”

The assembly will convene for nine 3-day weekends over 4 months.

“You are here in a place in which new forms of democracy are being invented and developed … and of them the Citizen Convention is without doubt the most ambitious, the most demanding and the most engaging,” participants were told by [the president of CESE, the convening body], Thierry Beaudet. “It’s impossible to do this [deliberation] on the scale of a country, so you’re going to do it for us, for the whole of society … This is the basis of both your legitimacy and our trust in you.”

The randomly selected audience hardly looked revolutionary. Participants had only some of the youth and diversity of, say, the crowds travelling in the nearby Paris metro; they also had very few of the confident smiles and neat, conservative clothes that are the hallmark of elected politicians. At the same time, every element of society and France’s geography seemed present: a cheese farmer from the Alps, a professor of Greek and a retired teacher from Lille were joined by an immigrant from Niger, people of Algerian and Moroccan heritage and women in Muslim headscarves.

True mirror of a country’s whole population

It was unique to see a true mirror of a country’s whole population in one place: France came across as predominantly middle-aged, paler-skinned, polite, attentive and – after some initial shyness – articulate, collaborative and ready to challenge authority.

All whom I met were delighted to take part, even if, before they got the phone call inviting them to the Convention, few had given much prior thought to civic action or end-of-life issues. Even fewer had heard of random selection. “I can’t believe how lucky I was to be selected!” said one. “I’m very proud to be here,” said another. “I feel like for once my voice will be heard,” said a third.

The claim that the makeup of the body is a “true mirror of the country’s population” should not be accepted without significant reservations. Presumably the age, religion, place of residence and even skin color could be verified to matched to those of the population as a whole. However, the faithful representation of other characteristics, especially ideological, would be much harder to verify. The enthusiasm of the participants, for example, could be representative, could be due to self-selection, or could be due to other forms of bias. Without transparency in the selection process, there is little reason to assume that the sample is truly representative.

“The level of government support and organisation is so different this time,” said Mélanie Blanchetot, one of the participants in the 2019-20 Climate Convention, who was invited back to brief the new assembly on what had for her been a life-changing awakening to political activism. “When we started, there were members of parliament who said: ‘What legitimacy do you have?’”

This supposed support by the establishment (support whose solidity and implications are yet to be seen) may very well be simply an indication that this body is much less of a threat to the powers-that-be than the CCC. As Pope indicates below, the allotted are naturally very much aware of these questions.

The quality of much of the information was striking, like a 102-page report from France’s National Centre for End of Life-Palliative Care. With scrupulous neutrality, the document gives participants examples of end-of-life dilemmas cases and a list of arguments for and against actively assisted death.

Most of these documents and speeches are being made public on CESE’s website to allow the rest of France to inform itself alongside the Convention. The participants’ deliberation, however, is private. This took place in between the briefings at tables of about 10 people, whose make-up was shuffled between sessions through repeated selection by lot. Here the role of facilitators was key, especially in making sure everyone’s voice was heard.

Without impugning the good intentions of those involved in the organization of the conference (which in the case being discussed here probably have little at stake and no particular outcomes in mind), how can it be determined that the documents exhibit “scrupulous neutrality” or that facilitators were unbiased? Having the documents open to the public is of course essential, but that is retrospective. And what about the discussions, shouldn’t they be recorded or transcribed and made available to the public?

Politics behind calling the convention

One unexpectedly lively area of private discussion among participants was the politics behind President Macron calling the Convention into existence. Some thought it might be an attempt to score a popular goal without losing the support of people with strong views, since the most recent poll in February 2022 shows that 94 per cent of French people agree with assisted dying in cases of extreme suffering and 89 per cent agree with assisted suicide.

Perhaps alluding to politicians’ perceived need to renew their legitimacy before an electorate alienated from politics – about one quarter of French voters abstained from last presidential elections – Prime Minister Borne hoped that the Convention would play a “central role” in a new national debate, bypassing polarizing debates in electoral campaigns.

The issue of what would happen to the Convention’s findings triggered the only moment of tension on the first weekend. In response to critical questions from the Convention floor, the president of the National Assembly sharply defended her conviction that while the conventioneers might have valuable inputs and reflect French society, the elected parliament had the final word.

“You are free, but so are we … even if you reflect greater diversity than parliament, you don’t represent the people! You are a foundation stone and we will all build the wall together,” Braun-Pivet said. “There is no question that random selection will replace elections.”

The fact that National Assembly president feels the need to assert that parliament is a legitimate representative of the people and that elections will not be replaced by sortition indicates the atmosphere of crisis around the existing political structure. Presumably if the citizens were given the chance, they would have challenged the president to explain what is the basis for her claims other than the fact that it reflects that status quo of power. Shouldn’t the citizens be the ones determining the power structure rather than those who are in power? Shouldn’t we have an allotted body discussing exactly those issues rather than have them decreed to the citizens from a podium?

Even if this put-down grated with some – one participant grumbled about feeling like a commoner at the last Estates-General of Louis XVI’s crumbling regime, convened just before it collapsed in the 1789 French revolution – the atmosphere in the convention remained highly collaborative. As Prime Minister Borne pointed out, “few countries in the world would give such responsibility to randomly selected people and commit to collective deliberation.”

A very apt comment by the allotted citizen. While Borne’s concluding comment is true, and is to some extent a point in favor of the French society and state, it reflects not so much the advanced democratic nature of France as the backwards oligarchical state of all supposedly “democratic” regimes (France included).

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