Schnapper: Extreme democracy and democratic extremists

Dominique Schnapper is the director of studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) (retired) and a former member of the French Constitutional Council. This is a translation of Schnapper’s articleExtrême et extrémistes de la démocratie” published in April 2019 on the Telos website.

The Gilets Jaunes movement fights under the banner of “real” democracy and it risks contributing to the destruction of the only democratic regime that has ever existed, namely representative democracy.

Democracy always had two dimensions: a democratic one and an aristocratic one. Democratic because the rulers submit to elections by the ruled and are rewarded or punished through the vote.

The dream of direct democracy

The aristocratic dimension was always a source of disagreement. The dream of direct or total democracy has accompanied the history of democracy. But it is today all the more present in the idea that entrusting decision making to others is contradictory to the conception of the sovereign democratic individual doing things himself, and being the source of all legitimacy and competence. He brings his own legitimacy. He feels fully qualified to express himself directly by himself without the intervention of a representative.

Democrats like neither mediation nor distinctions. Every type of distinction – and in particular the distinction between voters and elected – every hierarchy is perceived as discriminatory. The elites are easily denounced as responsible for all our failures. For there the ideas of direct democracy and ideas inspired by direct democracy regain their power. Protesting activists become actors of a “counter-democracy” [Pierre Rosanvallon, La contre démocratie, 2006], they speak about the foundational principles of democracy and the liberation from electoral rhythm in order to exercise daily surveillance on the actions of the rulers.
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An interview with a member of the French Citizen Climate Convention

In January, Le Télégramme interviewed, Denis Boucher, a member of the French Citizen Climate Convention:

How is the convention organized?

We are 150 citizens of all ages and walks of life, including some who are younger than 18 and others who live in overseas France. There is great diversity and I believe that we represent French society quite well. We gather one weekend each month for a session of three days. We work around five themes dealing with the objective of reaching a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030: food, transportation, housing, consumption, and production. I am part of the housing theme. The allocation to themes was by sortition – that is the principle of the convention. We reject expertise from the outset and it is normal citizens who express themselves, whoever they may be. It is an altogether original organization which really embodies direct democracy. It is a little like the citizens of Ancient Greece would discuss the issues of the city in the agora.

Where are you now in the process?

We are in the fourth session and we just finished the latest weekend of work. After 4 months during which we heard numerous speakers and understood the climate and the objectives we are now entering into the thick of it. We are going to propose measures that will become bills of legislature, decrees or constitutional amendments. That is not going to be easy!
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Comments by members of the French Citizen Climate Convention

Thomas Baïetto of Franceinfo has talked to 9 members of the French Citizen Climate Convention and reports their comments about their work.

Sylvain, a 45 year old Parisian marketing manager, says that before he was allotted he used to be “a cynical Parisian” rahter than an environmental activist. He does not hide his enthusiasm about this assembly of “citizen superheros, somewhere between Jaurès and Léon Blum” and about its complex mission.

“I was skeptical at first. I was thinking that these 150 people, if there were as ignorant as I am , that is going to be difficult,” says Grégoire, 31 year old from Caen. The first months of work, spread over a several weekend sessions in Paris, have convinced him that there is a possibility of formulating proposals that are “strong, powerful and acceptable by the population.”

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Mellier-Wilson: More on the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat

Claire Mellier-Wilson, “Systems Change and Participation Practitioner”, has a lengthy and informative article about the French Citizen Climate Convention, with details about its origins, its organization, proceedings and schedule and the people and bodies involved.

One rather interesting detail is as follows:

Themes and group work

Alongside plenary discussions where all 150 citizens stay together, the Convention members are also working in groups.

The 150 citizens have been split into five groups of 30 people covering five themes: ‘Se deplacer’ transport, ‘Se nourir’ food, ‘Consommer’ consumption, ‘Travailler et produire’ work and production, ‘Se loger’ housing. The selection of the citizens in each group was done by lot in order to prevent people from choosing their preferred subjects and this introducing an element of bias into the process.

A cross-cutting group, called ‘escouade’ was created after the second session in November 2019, at the request of the citizens, in order to look at overarching topics relevant to all five themes such as: the financing of measures, communication, engagement, education and training, constitutional reform, energy production and consumption, protection of the natural environment and biodiversity. An overview of the transverse topics can be found in the summary of session 3. However, it emerged that this cross-cutting group, based on the self-selection principle (rather than selection by lot) presented issues of legitimacy and had process implications, as it did run in parallel with the other five groups, and in effect was preventing people from being fully engaged with their original topic. Also, due to the subjects covered in the escouade (i.e. constitutional reform, finances etc.), it created tensions around the perceived more strategic nature of that group. As a result, the Governance Committee decided to suspend the escouade. Going forward, the topics from the escouade will be dealt with via different mechanisms as announced by Thierry Pech, Co-chair of the Convention, at the end of Session 4.

Sortition in the New Yorker, again

For the second time in less than a year, sortition is mentioned in the New Yorker. Last time, it was merely an off-handed comment. This time, sortition is front and center. Nathan Heller’s article is built around an interview with Hélène Landemore. Alexander Guerrero also gets quoted.

Landemore’s ideal is participative, but she seems to be working with a rather loose concept for her proposals:

What distinguishes Landemore’s ideal from other lottocratic models, such as Guerrero’s, is the breadth of her funnel: the goal is to involve as much of the public organically in as many decisions as possible. Her open-democratic process also builds in crowdsourced feedback loops and occasional referendums (direct public votes on choices) so that people who aren’t currently governing don’t feel shut out.

As evidence that open democracy can work in large[…,] culturally diverse societies, Landemore points to France’s Great National Debate—a vast undertaking involving a vibrant online forum, twenty-one citizens’ assemblies, and more than ten thousand public meetings, held in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, in 2019—and, this year, to the country’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change.

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Electoral meltdown in Peru

Continuing a pattern of electoral upheaval in various countries around the world, Peru has recently undergone unprecedented early elections, whose outcome is the most fragmented congress in the country’s history. A party associated with a political sect has become the second largest in congress, with 8.9% of the vote.

Two views on Climate Assembly UK

A citizens assembly discussing climate issues is meeting for the first time this weekend.

Ordinary people from across the UK – potentially including climate deniers – will take part in the first ever citizens’ climate assembly this weekend.

Mirroring the model adopted in France by Emmanuel Macron, 110 people from all walks of life will begin deliberations on Saturday to come up with a plan to tackle global heating and meet the government’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The assembly was selected to be a representative sample of the population after a mailout to 30,000 people chosen at random. About 2,000 people responded saying they wanted to be considered for the assembly, and the 110 members were picked by computer.

They come from all age brackets and their selection reflects a 2019 Ipsos Mori poll of how concerned the general population is by climate change, where responses ranged from not at all to very concerned. Of the assembly members, three people are not at all concerned, 16 not very concerned, 36 fairly concerned, 54 very concerned, and one did not know, organisers said.
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