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Digital democracy as a response to the gilets jaunes – lessons learned

French MP Paula Forteza talks to SmartCitiesWorld about the lessons learned from this large-scale consultation exercise and details how France has tried to channel the anger seen on its streets into positive public engagement.

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Paula Forteza
Paula Forteza

The gilets jaunes’ (“yellow vests”) movement, which has seen campaigners protesting almost every week for nearly six months, prompted the French government to launch a national consultation, enabled by technology and on a much bigger scale than ever before in France.

 

French MP Paula Forteza talks to SmartCitiesWorld about the lessons learned from this exercise and details how France has tried to channel the anger seen on its streets into positive public engagement.

 

SCW: Can you tell us more about the ‘digital democracy’ response to the gilets jaunes movement?

 

PF: The gilets jaunes movement in France is a complex social movement that points out social injustices from a political system that has excluded voices for decades.

 

The movement shows the negative effects of the lack of participatory mechanisms in our institutional architecture.

 

The yellow vests have been protesting in the streets since November because an institutional dialogue was not possible. Their claims did not find an official channel of communication to reach the decision-makers.

 

As a response to this movement, the French government launched the ‘Grand National Debate’ in January 2019 around four topics: public spending, ecological transition, public services and democratic institutions.

 

Different ways to participate were proposed to French citizens living in France or abroad: online by responding to surveys or open questions and physically by participating in local meetings or by sending open propositions to MPs, ministers or mayors.

 

 

In total, 10,134 local meetings were organised with more than 500,000 citizens, almost 2 million proposals were posted on the online platform, 27,400 emails were sent to public officials and more than 630,000 pages of local lists of citizen grievances were collected.

 

In total, 10,134 local meetings were organised with more than 500,000 citizens, almost 2 million proposals were posted on the online platform, 27,400 emails were sent to public officials and more than 630,000 pages of local lists of citizen grievances were collected.

 

SCW: We are seeing civil unrest over various issues throughout the world – why do you think governments aren’t already engaging in more participatory approaches? What are the challenges?

 

PF: Around the world, I think things are changing. We have seen many governments, including France, confronting social discontent to renew democracy.

 

We have also seen the Sunflower Movement in Taïwan, the Indignados in Spain and the political scandals in Estonia.

 

Those movements were translated into effective democratic participation online and offline.

 

In Taiwan, the government opened up the decision-making process on significant and controversial issues. In Madrid, the Decide Madrid platform gives citizens the opportunity to suggest new [initiatives and decide how public money is spent].

 

In Estonia, through Rahvakogu, citizens can crowdsource ideas and proposals related to the future of democracy in Estonia. And in France, the National Debate has shown great participation and the results will be published soon.

 

We really need to reinvent our democratic political system by involving citizens in different exchanges.

 

Today, the challenges are to create regular participatory tools between government and citizens to manage public policies – not to create participatory tools only when citizens are unhappy towards the government.

 

We really need to reinvent our democratic political system by involving citizens in different exchanges. The question that we face in France after the National Debate is how to institutionalise this demand for citizen participation in the long term.

 

SCW: What will be the practical outcomes of this work? How will it change things in France?

 

PF: The government’s response to this crisis and citizens’ investment and expectations will have to be matched through concrete action plans and solutions within different institutions, administrations, parliament, local and national government.

 

Some solutions will have to tackle the immediate needs with quick actions. In parallel, we will have to address the long-term, structural changes. This will require commitment from the government and understanding and patience from citizens.

 

For me, the immediate takeaway from this public consultation is that we need to rebuild the trust between citizens and elected officials, with more transparency and more participation.

 

I also think that we need to learn from this experiment and maybe force ourselves to organise a National Debate every two or three years, or to put in place more mechanisms for continuous deliberation like a petition right or local referendums.

 

It is urgent that we revitalise our democracies through a robust and impactful set of participatory initiatives. We have in our hands the future of the social contract and, in a way, the future of our democracy.

 

It is important to note that this unique democratic moment produced an important amount of sociological and political data that will require a profound exercise of analysis to grasp all the citizens’ proposals to change public policies.

 

The good news is that all this data is published as open data so civil society can reuse it to create concrete and operational tools.

 

SCW: What were the challenges of the National Debate?

 

PF: For me, the main challenge was to attract all French citizens to participate, no matter what their location, age, social class or level of education.

 

I think that the National Debate tried to face this issue by proposing different ways to participate – online and physically. For French citizens living abroad, I organised a tour of local meetings around the world with my colleagues.

 

In Latin America, we met around 150 citizens in Mexico, Bogota, São Paulo and Buenos Aires. These meetings were very interesting with concrete propositions.

 

The second challenge for me will be the analysis to reach a consensus and some conclusions from this massive citizen input. We are already having debates about the methodology used, the reliability of using AI mechanisms and the timeframe constraints we have to publish the first conclusions.

 

SCW: What can be learned by other national governments and cities?

 

PF: Half a million citizens contributed to the online platform and another half a million participated in offline local meetings.

 

Even if it is not representative enough of the French population, we can say that the Grand National Debate was a success.

 

Even if it is not representative enough of the French population, we can say that the Grand National Debate was a success.

 

This experimental democratic opportunity showed us that citizens want to talk with other citizens as much as being heard by the government.

 

The future of their country is really important for them and they need to confront ideas and points of view – regularly, not only when a real dissatisfaction appears.

 

We are moving towards a new form of deliberative and participatory democracy that we need to mature and perfect.

 

The lessons that I would share with other governments are quite simple but urgent to put in place:

 

  1. Don’t be afraid of citizen input, even if as public officials we will always face criticisms and mistrust. I have learned through the National Debate that citizens want and can propose meaningful and very innovative ideas.

  2. By opening up participatory mechanisms and committing to giving them an institutional effect, we are already advancing towards gaining citizens’ trust.

  3. Experimentation is key! I am sure that the Grand Debate can be improved but now that we have some experience, we can make it better for the next time.

  4. For me, the minimum methodological requirements for a successful consultation are openness, honesty and impact. That is: openness through using an open source digital tool and publishing all the data in an open format; honesty through being transparent about the expectations and the outcomes; and impact through making sure citizens’ input receives an institutional answer and outcome.

This week, French president Emmanuel Macron is due to make a national address, detailing how the findings of the consultation will be turned into concrete actions and policies.

 

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