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.
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?”