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EXPLAINED: What are France’s ‘citizen councils’?

Since 2019, France has been using 'citizen councils' to allow regular people to have their voice heard in government. Here is how they work:

EXPLAINED: What are France's 'citizen councils'?
France's President Emmanuel Macron (R) embraces French actress Line Renaud during a ceremony at the Elysee Palace where the veteran actress received Le Grand'croix de la Legion d'honneur. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP)

Citizen councils have made the news in France again, after French President Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to launch one on the thorny issue of the right to die, according to Franceinfo.

After hosting 94-year-old actress and outspoken advocate for the right to die, Line Renaud, over the weekend, Macron made a speech saying that her “fight for the right to die with dignity obliges us” and that “this is the time to do it.”

Yet the subject remains taboo for many in France, so ahead of announcing any possible laws on the subject, the President’s government will first launch a ‘Citizen Council’.

So what are Citizen Councils anyways?

When French government officials call for the creation of a citizen council – un collectif citoyen – they are not calling for a referendum. Instead, a citizen council pulls together a group of ordinary people who are selected to represent the voice of the French people (rather than French politicians) on important issues. 

They have been used on a variety of different social causes, ranging from climate change to vaccine scepticism.

For the vaccine campaign during the Covid-19 crisis, the citizen’s council was intended to offer observations and pose questions to the government, whether those be regarding health, ethics, logistics or any other point that seemed relevant to members of the council.

READ MORE: How France is using ‘citizen councils’ to improve Covid vaccine uptake

Functioning similarly to a public jury, the members of the council are compensated for their time and are chosen in a way that is intended to reduce bias.

Using the vaccine campaign citizen’s council as an example, the group was randomly selected and diverse in terms of age, employment status (a mix of salaried employees, farmers, artists, minimum wage workers etc) and geographic origin (some were from cities, while others were from rural areas). Additionally, the group was chosen to be diverse in opinion regarding vaccination – with six hostile, 16 undecided, and 13 favourable – to accurately represent the span views of the French population. 

What powers do they have?

Any recommendations that they make are purely advisory – the government can reject them, and even if the government agrees they can also be defeated on the journey through parliament.

Recommendations from Citizen Councils are subject to the same level of parliamentary and other scrutiny as any other type of bills.

Although it’s generally a bad look for governments to call a council and then ignore what it says, their proposals often end up being watered down. For example the citizen council on the climate recommended that domestic flights should be banned between towns that could be reached by train in less than four hours.

The French government did end up banning domestic flights, but only in places that can be reached by train in two-and-a-half hours. 

How did the French government start using citizen councils?

The use of citizen councils began in 2019, when the groups known as Démocratie ouverte (Open Democracy) and Gilets Citoyen (Citizen Vests) called for the creation of a citizens’ assembly.

This was when the ‘yellow vest’ protests were at their height – one of the major complaints of the movement was that French governments do not listen to ordinary citizens, so citizen councils aimed to give the average person the right to speak and be heard, without having to take to the streets.

What’s the goal of the group?

The council aims to represent average people’s opinions to the government by providing a voice of the public for politicians to listen to.

In late 2019, the Convention citoyenne pour le climat (Citizens Convention for Climate), was created – a group of 150 people living throughout France, who, over the period of a few months, were asked to find ways in which France can reduce its carbon emissions by 40 percent (compared to those of 1990) by 2030 – all in the “spirit of social justice” as described by the president.

By mid June 2020, the CCC was able to present its proposals at the Élysée Palace and many of them were adopted and have begun working their way through parliament.

What are some other reasons for citizen conventions?

In the case of the right to die, there is speculation that President Macron’s objective is to use a citizen’s convention to calm viewpoints on the subject prior to introducing it as a law.

“If civil society agrees, then it will be more difficult for parliament to oppose it,” explained a minister who supports euthanasia to Franceinfo. 

In this sense, while intended to be a method of listening to everyday people’s concerns, citizen’s councils can also be a way to tone down divisive topics.

Are there any criticisms of citizen’s conventions?

Some feel that citizen’s councils simply serve to repeat what has already been discussed on subjects, without offering new perspectives. Anti-euthanasia lawyer Erwan le Morhedec expressed this frustration to Franceinfo, saying “What are we going to discuss if we know it’s already decided?”

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POLITICS

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

French President Emmanuel Macron will get a taste of public resistance to his second-term reform agenda this week during the first nationwide strike called since his re-election in April.

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

The 44-year-old head of state has pledged to push ahead with raising the retirement age having backed away from the explosive issue during his first five years in power.

But having lost his parliamentary majority in June, the pro-business centrist faces severe difficulties passing legislation, while galloping inflation is souring the national mood.

Despite warnings from allies about the risk of failure, Macron has tasked his government with hiking the retirement age to 64 or 65 from 62 currently, with changes to start taking effect next year.

“I’m not pre-empting what the government and the parliament will do, but I’m convinced it’s a necessity,” Macron told the BFM news channel last Thursday.

With deficits spiralling and public debt at historic highs, the former investment banker argues that raising the retirement age and getting more people into jobs are the only ways the state can raise revenue without
increasing taxes.

On Thursday, France’s far-left CGT union, backed by left-wing political parties, has organised a national day of strikes, the opening shot in what is expected to be a months-long tussle.

Though the protests were originally planned to demand wage increases, they are now intended to signal broad opposition to the government’s plans.

“We’re against the raising of the retirement age,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, told the LCI broadcaster last week. “The government’s arguments don’t stack up.”   

Unpopular

Public opinion towards pension reform and the strikes is likely to be decisive in determining whether Macron succeeds with a reform he called off in 2020 in the face of protests and Covid-19.

An opinion poll last week from the Odoxa group found that 55 percent of respondents did not want the reform and 67 percent said they were ready to support protests against it.

But a separate survey from the Elabe group gave a more nuanced picture. It also found that only a minority, 21 percent, wanted the retirement age increased, but a total of 56 percent thought the current system no longer worked and 60 percent thought it was financially unsustainable.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to work for longer, but I don’t know anyone who thinks they are not going to work for longer,” a minister close to Macron told AFP last week on condition of anonymity.

“Maybe I’m mistaken but I’m not sure that the turnout will be as large as the unions and LFI are hoping for,” he said, referring to the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) political party that has backed the strikes.

The second decisive factor will be how the government introduces the reform in parliament where Macron’s allies are around 40 seats short of a majority.

Some favour slipping it into a social security budget bill that will be voted on in October — a stealthy move that will be denounced as under-handed by critics.

Others think more time should be taken for consultations with trade unions and opposition parties, even though they have all ruled out working with the government.

Macron prefers the quicker option, one senior MP told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In both scenarios, observers expect the government to resort to a controversial constitutional mechanism called “article 49.3” that allows the executive to ram legislation through the national assembly without a vote.

If opposition parties unite against the measure or call a no-confidence motion in the government, they could trigger new elections.

The reform was “ballsy but dangerous,” one ally told French media last week.

Macron II

Success with the pension reform and separate changes to the unemployment benefits system will help the president re-launch his image as a reformer, experts say.

Since winning a historic second term in April, he has been caught up in the Ukraine war crisis amid reports the parliamentary election setback in June left him disoriented and even depressed.

“We’ve slightly lost the narrative of Macronism,” political scientist Bruno Cautres, a researcher at Sciences Po university in Paris, told AFP recently.

The challenge was giving the second term a “direction” and showing “how it builds on the results of the first”, he said.

“The essence of Macronism, which does not have a long history, is the leader and the programme,” added Benjamin Morel from Paris II university.

Since being elected as France’s youngest-ever president in 2017, Macron has made overhauling social security and workplace regulation part of his political DNA.

“Emmanuel Macron can’t easily back away from a reform because burying a reform, it’s like disavowing himself,” Morel said.

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