France Turns to Citizen-Legislators to Craft Climate Reforms

Can a small group of randomly selected people succeed where French politicians have failed?

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Stephane Lemouton/Pool/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP Images

Is it an act of courageous optimism for a president to turn over a key part of his climate agenda to a group of citizens, or a cynical way of washing his hands of responsibility for one of the most contentious issues in human history? French President Emmanuel Macron hopes that his restive nation perceives the Citizens’ Convention on Climate as the former. In a country where the past year of headlines has been shaped by the small but fiery Yellow Vest movement, this quasi-legislative gathering is at once a quietly revolutionary act of direct democracy and a politically risky gambit for the embattled president.

Launched as part of the Macron government’s response to the Yellow Vest protestors’ demands for more citizen input into legislative decision-making, the convention has convened a diverse group of 150 randomly-selected people to produce actionable legislation—yes, legislation—to significantly reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade. It is, if nothing else, a precarious undertaking for the French president, given that many of the convention's delegates (or “citizens” as they refer to themselves) are not his biggest fans.

Macron acknowledged as much during a highly anticipated, mid-January question and answer session with the convention, at its invitation. “You’re not here to be used,” he said. “You’re here to create collective intelligence and help me decide things together.” Macron, seated in the inner circle of a series of ringed tables, spent two-and-a-half hours dialoguing with the group. Among his sometimes meandering responses, he decried a “capitalism of accumulation,” called for more regulations on big business while defending “open, social democratic market economies,” and urged the convention to also think on a Europe-wide scale.

In response to the perhaps most anticipated question—what will the convention really lead to?—Macron reiterated his promise to submit the convention’s final proposals directly to the French legislature for a vote, or to voters in a referendum. The latter, he said, could even serve to increase public awareness of the urgent need for decisive climate action. 

Despite wide-ranging political differences among the delegates themselves, the group “appreciated” Macron’s willingness to come and talk to them in person, said Sylvain Burquier, a 45-year-old marketing manager from Paris. “He gave us clear commitments,” Burquier said. “Now we’re at the complicated part—coming up with precise enough measures.”

THE CLIMATE CRISIS’S causes and solutions have long been clear, but deploying technical experts to design responses has been less of a problem than persuading politicians and voters to take and support decisive action. For decades, Western democracies have “overestimated the competence of experts, as well as elected elites,” said Hélène Landemore, an associate professor of political science at Yale and French native, who was on an initial shortlist to run the convention.

Citizen assemblies of randomly selected individuals are on the verge of entering a “golden age,” according to Landemore, whose research focuses on participatory democracy.  She pointed to a 2004 citizens’ assembly in Canada that debated electoral reform, and 2012 and 2016 gatherings in Ireland that led to constitutional reforms on gay marriage and abortion. In the U.K., a citizen’s climate assembly (modeled on the French convention) met for the first time in January, and will send its report to the U.K. Parliament in April.

If policy complexity is the first hurdle the convention has had to overcome, skepticism is the second.

Indeed, the delegates in early October appeared acutely aware that this gathering was much more than just another town hall with a politician as the convention got underway with opening remarks from French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. The setting for the weekend sessions conveys such seriousness: the Palais d’Iéna, Auguste Perret’s art deco masterpiece with views of the Eiffel Tower from across the Seine, the headquarters of France’s Social, Economic, and Environmental Council, an national advisory group of civic leaders that is overseeing the convention.

The delegates—now more than halfway through their seven three-day-weekend sessions, which will conclude in April—were selected from a pool of randomly drawn phone numbers and hail from urban areas like Lyon, rural regions like Corrèze in the southwest, and overseas territories and departments like Guadeloupe. Almost evenly divided between men and women, the delegates represent a broad mix of ages, educational backgrounds, professions, and geographical locales. (France does not collect data on race or ethnicity.) A few, like Rhadja Khaddour, a 17-year-old high school student from the northwester Paris suburb of Argenteuil, aren’t even old enough to vote. Yet, Khaddour shares responsibility for fulfilling the convention’s specific remit: to craft new laws that reduce emissions by 40 percent by 2030 in ways that also promote social and economic justice.

Given the citizens’ vastly different backgrounds and experiences, the convention has had to conduct crash courses in climate science and civics. Climate researchers have provided global emissions data, details on France’s own progress, and scenarios—including doomsday situations if countries fail to coordinate their actions. There are endless streams of other experts from think tanks and universities drilling the delegates on topics like trade, agriculture, regulation, and finance as well as decrypting the related legislative, executive, and various bureaucratic processes. And finally, there are lawyers to transform convention’s final proposals into legislation that the French government can act on.

The delegates have studied France’s major sources of emissions, including the agriculture and transportation sectors, studying various pathways to achieve targeted emissions reductions in these areas. The convention has not focused on electricity generation because France’s electricity sector (roughly 20 percent renewables and 72 percent nuclear energy) is largely decarbonized—France is one of the few countries where nuclear power, though it remains controversial, continues to play a major role in power generation.

Though France is not meeting its own emissions targets, it accounts for just 1 percent of global emissions. The country could go carbon-neutral tomorrow, and the impact would be almost imperceptible. That means that the delegates also have had to consider measures that would require action by the European Union. For example, a “border adjustment tax on carbon”—which would effectively allow the EU to set a higher “price” on carbon in its own market without worrying that foreign businesses would undercut such stricter environmental regulations—or re-structuring Europe’s farm subsidies to promote agroecology and regenerative agricultural practices.

If policy complexity is the first hurdle the convention has had to overcome, skepticism is the second. “I’m confident that the citizens will produce concrete measures, but whether they’ll be taken up by the government, we will see what happens when the convention is over,” said Mathieu Denoix, a 37-year-old laboratory technician for a transportation and energy company, who lives in Saint Aulaire, a town of 800 residents in rural southwest France near Bordeaux. Denoix added that he has always had a hard time trusting politicians.

That sense of distrust is shared by some of the citizens who worry that the government intends to use the convention as a way of bringing back the carbon tax that sparked the Yellow Vest movement, while passing off responsibility for it to the convention. (Macron sought to push back against these worries during his January visit, admitting that his government had “erred” in pursuing a carbon tax without redistributing the proceeds to economically vulnerable households.) Khaddour, the high school student, also said that though she has never put too much confidence in politicians because “there are lots of lies.” But she is confident about the convention.

Even Nicolas Hulot, a widely-admired environmental activist who briefly served as Macron’s environment minister and climate czar before quitting unexpectedly two years ago on live radio over the government’s lack of progress on climate goals, expressed confidence in Macron’s citizen-lawmakers. “I don’t think the government called this assembly just to shoot itself in the foot,” he said when he addressed the convention in November.

Landemore, the Yale professor, told me that the idea of using citizens for “window dressing” wasn’t viable, and would be ill-received among the broader public. But she said, “It also means there are high expectations placed on these assemblies: They need to deliver the goods if they want to establish their legitimacy in the long term.”

For his part, Burquier, the delegate from Paris, has been particularly impressed by the amity that exists among the participants during this particularly divisive period in France. Though they are compensated with the same modest sum as they would be for jury duty (roughly the equivalent of $100 per day, plus travel expenses), many delegates have put in overtime, doing research on their own, discussing policy details online and in WhatsApp groups, and even organizing events to engage their own neighborhoods and communities. That “150 people from completely different universes—moms, suburbanites, white-collar workers, artisans, truck drivers, people from disadvantaged areas—are able to calmly discuss things without getting too worked up, is impressive,” Burquier said.

While there has been a fierce, public backlash against “experts” in the United States and France, solving the climate crisis requires problem solvers with a prodigious amount of expertise—as the delegates themselves have discovered. A new set of institutions that thrust ordinary people into the thick of legislative give-and-take might be one antidote to the divisiveness of populism. French researchers, activists, and politicians are contemplating the idea that the convention could become a permanent fixture in France, with rotating assemblies tackling different issues. Landemore says that such a move “would bring citizens much closer together and help reabsorb some of the social distrust that characterizes France at the moment.”

With the backdrop of the failed United Nations Climate Conference in Madrid last month, unprecedented wildfires in Australia, and fears surrounding the acceleration toward points of no return, it is indeed remarkable that a group of randomly selected non-experts is constructively engaging a looming planetary catastrophe. Can the citizen-convention model help break political impasses and reconnect people with government? Perhaps. Amid the social and political crises of trust and disaffection that have emerged in Western democracies, bringing together citizens who can take the lead in restoring their compatriots’ faith in government, and in each other, may be one way forward.

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