Dr. Dominik Hierlemann
24. March 2019

Macron’s ‘big national debate’– at last

They say „You reap what you sow“. Emmanuel Macron sowed and ploughed tirelessly the past months, travelling the country and engaging with citizens on democracy all over France. But what will he harvest?

At the beginning of the year, the French president proclaimed the “Grand Débat“, the big national debate. The nationwide discussions in town halls, gyms and on the Internet were supposed to put a stop to the steadily rising stream of “Gilet Jaunes“, the revolting yellow vests.


It looked as if the arable Emmanuel was already reaping the first fruits. His approval ratings went up again, the yellow vests remained increasingly at home. Until exactly the end of the debate on March 15th. A horde of violent men wearing black masks, many from all over the world, rioted Champs-Élysée – and drew attention to the fact that the new debating fraternity probably did not extend to all Frenchmen.


The grumbling can no longer be ignored


In fact, many ask themselves: Is the big debate not just a PR trick by the strategists in the Élysée? A brilliant move that makes the elite president roll up his sleeves and shine in up to seven-hour “Town Hall Meetings“? Or even a red herring, an “Operation Fortitude“, to stall time and simply sit out the problems France is facing and the grumbling of the French?


None of this is wrong. But it is only part of the truth. For in fact, far more than 1.7 million French “citoyennes und citoyens” have taken part in the country’s largest ever citizens’ debate organized from above. There were more than 10,000 events in municipalities, 400,000 pages were filled in the so-called “cahiers des doléances” (complaint books), which were displayed in town halls.


Hours and hours live on television


The debates with Emanuel Macron were broadcast live on television – and watched extensively. “Democracy thrives on participation” is a frequently repeated phrase in political education. If so many people actually take part, then democracy on the other side of the Rhine cannot be in such a bad shape.

On the official website, the French were able to answer given questions on the four topics of the “Grand Débat”: ecological change, state spending, democracy and citizenship, as well as the organisation of the state. Even writing on it was possible.


The citizens made good use of it. So much so that many now wonder how the vast amount of ideas can be meaningfully evaluated in the shortest possible time. Television even reported on the company tasked with untying the huge knot of contributions, probably in countless nightshifts.


Citizens and participants were selected by chance


But that’s not all. Largely unnoticed by the general public outside of France, Macron is testing a participation instrument that is gaining more and more supporters and is spreading worldwide: Randomly selected citizens discussing their ideas in 18 regional citizens’ conferences – and in one and a half days even try to reach consensus on controversial issues. The meetings, with between 60 and 130 participants, represent French society in all its diversity.


That, at least, is the theory. The first round of meetings took place in Paris, Poitiers, Rouen, Lille, Orléans, Marseille and Lyon. It was not easy to recruit participants via telephone or even messaging. The ones who came felt honoured and were interested – some remained sceptical though how obvious political differences can be bridged.


Macron has no problem with this. He beliefs that the conflict must first be demarcated before any compromise can be considered. This is evidence of a combative understanding of democracy and not at all of French-elitist attempts at appeasement “from above”.


A large-scale experiment in aleatoric democracy


The attempt of “aleatoric democracy” is exciting. Already in ancient Athens, political offices were awarded at random. Recently Catholic Ireland made two quantum leaps in society thanks to the proposals of a citizens’ assembly with randomly selected citizens. Following the work of the citizen assembly, same-sex marriage was introduced by a referendum and the abortion law reformed.


This brings us back to France. It is not enough to have citizen debates alone. Sometime after the first weeks of debate, clever strategists came up with the idea of a referendum at the same time as the European elections in May. But what should it be about?


Referendum or no referendum, Emmanuel Macron must show that he takes the immense flood of ideas that is pouring out of the great debate seriously. The High Priests of citizen participation like to say: Never start a participation process without knowing how you intend to deal with the results. A warning that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe also issued.


No way back to the drawer


There was no time for the president and his disciples for this kind of preparatory work. The great debate was born in a few weeks. Optimal laboratory conditions for large-scale political trials look different.


On the other hand, no one can simply let the citizens’ proposals disappear back into the drawers of the French bureaucracy. Too much has been produced, the public attention is too great. The French President, as he is, will probably announce just as great a change after the big debate. Only then will it become clear whether this will be a rich harvest for the French, for Emmanuel Macron and, yes, also for democracy.



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