France’s citizens’ movements taking on the elections

France's citizens' movements taking on the elections

A meeting of À nous la démocratie ! (Democracy for us!), one of the many citizens’ groups that want to field civil society candidates in the legislative elections to be held in June, in the wake of the presidential election.

(Emmanuelle Corne)

It is the biggest event in French politics. The presidential election, the first round of which is due to take place this Sunday 23 April, has laid bare the less attractive features of the Fifth Republic: the personification of debates, attacks on the leading man or woman.

In a campaign dogged by scandal, including “Penelope Gate” - accusations that the wife of Republican candidate François Fillon was fictionally employed as a parliamentary assistant – the traditional political figure is suffering a crisis of legitimacy.

Opinion polls suggest that there could be a 35 per cent abstention rate. The latest electoral survey by the Sciences-Po political research centre (Cevipof) in April shows that 36 per cent of those surveyed are still unsure of which way they will vote and 39 per cent choose by default.

In this climate of mistrust of the political class, some voices are slowly but surely making themselves heard.

Many citizens’ movements intend to throw a spanner into the works by calling for more participatory democracy, where power is in the hands of the citizens and not that of the political parties and professionals. Above all they want to see the rules of the game rewritten, they want a change and renewal of their institutions.

These movements are riding an international wave. The “Indignados” (the indignant) movement in Spain (2011), the precursor of Podemos, the Tunisian revolution (2010-11) or the pirate parties that now exist in some 60 countries, have all provided inspiration.

In France, occupations of public spaces by Nuit Debout (Up All Night) since 31 March 2016, on the fringes of the demonstrations against the Labour Law, or to a lesser extent the collegiate governance of the Saillans commune (Drôme) have given rise to new hope.

“We are experiencing both a democratic crisis and a groundswell of democratic participation” says the author of « Le coup d’État citoyen » (La Découverte, 2016), Romain Slitine, lecturer at Sciences Po and a specialist in citizens’ movements.

The failed presidential bid

Some have taken the next step, and tried to take part in the presidential election. The author of Zèbre, Alexandre Jardin, of the movement « Les Citoyens », identified two groups, the « doers », those who get things done, such as entrepreneurs, members of associations, and citizens, as being the source of a solution, and the “sayers” who do no more than speak.

Assistant health secretary for the Rennes City Council (Ille-et-Vilaine), Charlotte Marchandise, was the candidate for selected through an on-line poll that 32,685 people took part in. She promised to “do everything in my power to ensure that those citizens who so wish can exercise an electoral mandate” to oppose “a political class (...) which has confiscated all the levers of power”.

Their attempt failed. Neither of the two candidates obtained the required sponsorship of 500 elected representatives. The constitutional council validated only 165 for Alexandre Jardin and 135 for Charlotte Marchandise.

The candidate says the reason for this failed bid was the “pressure” from the political parties on the elected representatives, the short time between the result of the internet poll and the submission of the sponsorships to the constitutional council, the lack of coverage by the “big media.”

“One theory is that the people who voted on are not necessarily those who are usually part of civic engagement” says Loïc Blondiaux, a professor of political science and a specialist in participatory democracy, in an interview with Equal Times.

It is one of the obstacles facing the civic tech movement that uses the Internet and new technology to improve participation in the political system: their distance from the people.

Clément Mabi, a researcher who specialises in citizen’s participation, notes that “the level of distrust is such that the traditional institutions have to ‘tolerate’ the new movements”. But no more than that.

He believes that the failure of proves that “there is a controlled radicalism effect”. The threshold of 500 signatures is high for these candidates. The law of 25 April 2016, which provides for the publication of the full list of elected representatives who sponsored a candidate, fosters party pressure on the sponsors.

The traditional politicians laying claim to citizens’ movements

The presidential candidates in this campaign say they are aware of the mistrust. The old political parties are no longer popular. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the candidate for a movement – la France insoumise (rebellious France) – rather than the left-wing coalition the Front de gauche, who selected him as their candidate in 2012.

Keen to present himself as being an “anti-system” candidate, form Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron (2014-2016) founded another movement, En marche! in April 2016.

To varying extents, the candidates are calling for greater citizen participation.

“I do not believe that the destiny of France next May will be decided by the election of a man or women ‘saviour’ ” says Benoît Hamon in a video broadcast on the internet.

He picks up on some of the ideas put forward by the citizens’ movements: the “citizen 49-3” would allow 1 per cent of the electorate to impose or suspend the examination of a law by Parliament; the “participatory budget” would allow the French people to choose a certain budget envelope to be allocated to projects of their choice.

The socialist candidate has also established a citizens’ council. Its 42 members, chosen by lot, are responsible for sorting through the proposals made by a collaborative platform, also on the internet, before submitting their selection to the candidate.

After over 26,000 contributions, Benoît Hamon committed to 10 measures on 8 April, such as creating a “sustainable territory” label to support local authorities which are committed to ecological transition, or the repeal of the 1945 law that makes migrant solidarity a crime by punishing anyone who facilitates the entry, movement or illegal residence of a foreigner in France.

He has called on leading civic tech figures to guide this initiative: Elisa Lewis and Romain Slitine, authors of “Coup d’État citoyen” (A Citizens’ Coup) and both leaders of the Démocratie ouverte (Open Democracy) collective, a sort think tank for participatory democracy.

Calling for an end to political parties while siding with the Socialist Party candidate does not seem like a logical choice: “You can’t stay on the outside if you find a partner who is open to your issues. We are doing it to change the lines from the inside” Romain Slitine explains.

The dividing line between the political sphere and citizens’ movements is a porous one. Leïla Chaibi put her participation as an activist with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parte de Gauche on hold for a while and played an active role in Nuit Debout.

She feels that citizens’ movements and the occupations of public spaces face the same pitfalls: “This search for purity in the exercise of democratic life turns into mind-numbing bureaucracy and stops being effective”.

She is now the “national spokesperson” for la France Insoumise, which says it will abolish “the constitutional monarchy” by calling a Constituent Assembly through proportional representation, with candidates chosen by drawing lots.

A citizens’ archipelago in the National Assembly

Most of the citizens’ movements reject any compromise with the traditional parties.

“By being in a party, there is an obligation to defend its interests” explains Serge Ollivier to Equal Times. He is one of the co-founders of “À nous la démocratie!” (Democracy for us! - ANLD!) and a historian specialising in Latin America. He fears that there will be a “citizen washing” if the democracy projects are not led by citizens themselves.

To support its programme, based on six flagship proposals, such as the introduction of “49-4” (if the government does not win a majority in the vote for a bill of law in the National Assembly, it will have the right to put it directly to the electorate) or the possibility of a people’s referendum on a bill if 500,000 citizens demand it, À nous la démocratie ! will campaign in the legislative elections on 11 and 18 June.

“It’s a beginning. With 3 or 4 citizen parliamentarians, the symbolism will already be very strong” says Serge Ollivier.

It is time to rally their troops. À nous la démocratie ! will field candidates jointly with La relève citoyenne. They plan to field ten candidates, one of whom will be Charlotte Marchandies, who could become the candidate for a constituency in Rennes. She is also calling for the election of a citizens’ “archipelago” to the National Assembly.

Legislative elections provide the ideal stage for candidates from civil society. François Ruffin, the journalist and producer of “Merci Patron” (over 500,000 entrants in France), is standing in La Somme, in northern France.

The Nuit Debout founder will be a minimum wage parliamentarian (he would like to be paid the minimum wage of 1,500 euros). He promises to stand down if 25 per cent of voters ask him to and suggest that a jury chosen by drawing lots should chose which projects should be financed from parliamentary funds.

He is not a member of any party, but with his "Picardie Debout" movement he succeeded in uniting the French Communist Party (PCF), la France insoumise, Europe Ecologie - the Greens (EELV) and Ensemble, Clementine Autain’s movement. Unlike the very switched-on, logged-in civic tech, he prefers going door-to-door to persuade the voters.

"It’s the only thing that works," he says, thumbing his nose at movements that prefer to express their views via technology as a means of spreading democracy rather than face social reality on the doorstep.

This story has been translated from French.