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Have you ever heard of ordinary people helping the government make important decisions? Well, that’s exactly what happened in France. A climate policy by the people of France is an unexpected situation. For Sylvain Burquier, an ordinary French citizen, it initially felt like a joke. Sylvain Burquier was at his home in Paris when his phone rang in 2019. The person on the call was a representative of the French government calling to ask if he would participate in a political experiment. The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, wanted to reduce the country’s carbon emissions over the next decade. For this, the President of France wanted to form a group of random ordinary citizens to help him make the climate policy.
This was a strange request by President Emmanuel Macron. However, it made sense given the recent history. The previous attempts to tackle climate change by the President were not successful. It threw the country into turmoil and lessened the French President’s popularity.
Only one year and a half after Macron’s first term, hundreds of protesters in yellow vests went out onto the streets in November 2018 to protest against Macron’s fuel tax increase. The increase in fuel tax would have increased the levies on gasoline and diesel up to 25 cents per gallon to speed the country’s shift away from fossil fuels.
The protesters burned cars and smashed windows, and covered the walls and statues in Paris with anti-Macron graffiti. People were clearly upset by the fuel tax. Eventually, Macon suspended the fuel tax. A few months later, Macron came up with a new approach to form a 150-person randomly selected citizens’ convention on climate- the government would spend 5.4 million euros for this purpose.
This 150-person group would advise the French Parliament and the President on how to reduce the country’s carbon emissions.
This was not the first time a group of random ordinary citizens was asked to make decisions or advise policymakers and politicians on the day’s most controversial issues.
Over the past few decades, randomly selected groups of citizens focused on several issues, from gay marriages to nuclear power, have taken place across Asia, North America, and Europe. For instance, a citizen’s assembly in Ireland drafted new suggestions on abortion in 2017 which led to the legalization of abortion in the largely Catholic country of Ireland in 2018.
Another example: After several polls, town meetings, and lectures among utility customers in Texas between 1996 and 1998 helped the fossil fuel-filled state shift towards wind power. According to a report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the entire world is experiencing a deliberative wave as governments avoid using conventional modes of democracy in exchange for experimental and new forms.
According to experts, citizen assemblies can likely dissolve partisan boundaries and return power to the people. Coming to the issue of climate change, citizen assemblies can help break through the political gridlock that is endangering the planet.
Over the past few years, several citizen assemblies have focused on climate change in the US and Europe. One citizen assembly attempted to form a 100-person global assembly on climate change.
Returning to the French citizen assembly Burquier was asked about his age, gender, background, education, and profession on the call. The French government has contacted around 255,000 people; from there, only a small number would be selected through a method known as “sortition”. This method would attempt to recreate the demographics of France in miniature.
Burquier got another call two months later, saying that he was selected to be a member of the citizen assembly. Burquier and 149 other French citizens would meet monthly for the next nine months and report to a government building in Paris. The group would meet with experts, scientists, legislators, and the President of France to come up with suggestions on how the government should combat climate change.
Macron promised the group that he would submit their final recommendations to the French Parliament and put them up for a public referendum or sign them directly into law. Was the promise fulfilled?
After months and months of tiring work, meetings, arguments, and agreements, the convention finally submitted its list of 149 proposals in June 2020. Some of the recommendations include the ban on the construction of new airports, revising the constitution to make damaging the environment a crime, mandatory recycling, removing oil and heating systems from homes, and taxing corporate dividends to pay for green programs.
Macron had visited the convention several times to discuss issues and encourage the members to do their jobs. When the final proposal was finished, the convention was eager to present the proposal to the President. However, after the proposal’s release, the promise Macron had made with the convention began to look like a lie.
Macron announced that he was rejecting three proposals including the tax on corporate dividends to fund green programs and a nationwide speed limit of 68 miles per hour. This was only the beginning.
Over the next couple of months, the convention grew angry as they watched the President and the government ministers discard and modify several of the proposals. The banning of the construction of new airports and the plan to incorporate the fight against climate change into France’s constitution was discarded.
The convention members felt betrayed; they began pushing back. Few appeared in television interviews, even Burquier. In October 2020, the members wrote an open letter to the President- requesting Macron to fulfill his promises. Online petitions were also being sent around to do the same- the petition garnered more than 50,000 signatures.
Macron also gave interviews stating that the proposals decided by 150 citizens were not the final word meaning Macron and his ministers could change it however they see fit. According to Burquier, Macron created a monster and then lost control.