Can Europe Make It?

France’s Great Debate – how it worked

Today, March 15, France’s nationwide debate ends. Local meetings attracted thousands. But who was listening?

Peter G Collier
15 March 2019, 8.07pm
Macron attends the "Great National Debate" in Evry-Courcouronnes, February, 2019.
Pool/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

In 1802 Madame de Staël was quickly bored by German society. Germans simply took too long to finish their sentences. Back in her Paris salon, she claimed, everyone chattered at once while understanding each other.

The French have been chattering about their democracy for two months. To get some consensus the administration put in place three types of listening post: municipal complaint lists, local citizen debates and a national online platform.

Public complaints’ list

The Cahier de doléances was the complaints’ list used during the French Revolution. In December President Macron asked for a cahier in each town hall. Some 16,000 municipalities responded. Close to a million handwritten pages have been photocopied to be sent to an information analysis consultancy and the national library for archiving.

I visited a dozen town halls in Loire-Atlantique. The cahier wish-lists are full of repeats: ending politicians’ privileges, increasing speed limits from 80 to 90 kmh, legislate for a blank ballot to count in elections, return of the wealth tax (ISF) and a freeze on pension taxes. However, the cahier itself gave the best clue to local attitudes.

Some town halls provided a separate table and bound cahier. Others offer a cheap copy book. A straw poll suggests where there is a table there is a social democratic majority with a local debate organized. In the smaller, poorer communes a cheap copy book indicates no local debate. No Gilets jaunes in the former and a Facebook protest group in the latter. In this region, Pays de Loire, there were over 400 debates.

Citizens’ debate

Earlier in February I attended the citizens’ debate in St Herblain’s town hall. Some 60 people, mostly retired male professionals showed up. There were five twenty-somethings.

The debate was opened by the socialist mayor. Though no supporter of the President ‘it was only correct to hold the debate in the spirit of the Republic’ he said. So, like other councillors present he took no active part in the debate.

The discussion lasted three, exhausting hours. It began with a Gilet jaune who said the President was an imbecile. He’d no intention of staying within the agenda. The facilitator told him there were rules. ‘Fuck the rules,’ he barked. ‘Anarchy won’t solve our public debt problem,’ one man calmly rebuked.

The mike was taken by an elegant, bearded man, a retired director of General Revenue. He proceeded to give us a lesson on fiscal policy and democracy that was informative and amusing. He had no illusions where to turn to sustain national solidarity faced with corporate globalisation.

‘No European tax harmony no European Union,’ was his stark message.

The discussion was dominated by a group of professionals skilled in giving their point of view. Their contributions were factual and hardly ever boring. There were scant references to political parties or media personalities.

Two women spoke of their concern for migrants. Another Gilet jaune supporter criticised the President for introducing immigration quotas. This was not one of their demands, she said. Her view was supported by the son of Algerian immigrants. The defiant populist shook his yellow vest and muttered about the King of Morocco.

At the end of the debate an older, red-scarfed man calling himself ‘citizen Paul’ said the increasing social inequality casued him ‘chagrin’. His words reflected the group’s sober mood. The consensus was that what France needed was not a revolution but French democracy needed refounding. It was a far cry from the violent scenes we are invite to witness in Paris every Saturday afternoon.

Grand Debate Platform

Cap Collectif – a Civic-Tech start-up – manages the national Debate platform. Civic-Techs are consultative platforms. There are dozens of wannabes collecting real time opinion. Investors are mostly the usual suspects – banks and media tycoons. The rhetoric is libertarian. Clients are lobby groups, political parties or public authorities (here’s the start-up used by Macron for his presidential campaign).

The Grand Debate platform has structured questionnaires and a depository for individual proposals. The final stats are impressive. There were over 10,000 organized citizen debates with 1.4 million contributions (individual and group uploads). There are a further 18 Citizen Conferences scheduled whose participants have been randomly selected through sortition.

Citizen democracy?

How is all this opinion data to be understood by ordinary people? A polling firm called OpinionWay has the data analysis contract. The firm will audit the data without weighting or other variables. The pollsters argue for anonymity while academics argue against their non-scientific method.

The semantic analysis was subcontracted to QWAM. It’s not clear what level of abstraction will be used. Its boss Christian Langevin talks about ‘deep learning’ using Artificial Intelligence jargon. This scientism is mostly salesmanship.

There are voluntary creative commons groups (like this one) that annotate contributions posted on the Grand Debate platform. When the work is done the syntheses will be passed up to the President, his executive and state institutions. With the end of the hegemony of political parties, the goal is to embed a new transversal political space.

TED-talk President

One weakness of the Grand Debate was the absence of the educated younger generation. They didn’t see it as their gig. Politics, they are persuaded is a professional job[i]. Market or ‘innovative’ democracy start-ups like this is the way to go for community consensus building.

The other absence is a mainstream political opposition. The meltdown of the traditional Right/Left divide seems permanent. The reactionaries can’t fill the vacuum – at least not for the moment. The social experiment of the Great Debate offers hope for a new understanding of French politics in the chaos of social media chatter and continuing Gilets jaunes’ protests[ii].

Emmanuel Macron used the Great Debate to attend mayoral meetings, industrial salons and local debates. He moved around TEDx-style in shirt sleeves and micro, answering questions. His speeches were about efficiency. The President’s non-stop movement around France was covered by the mainstream media. His presidency is increasingly styled on Obama’s – civic republicanism combined with progressivism.

Polls show Macron’s LRM the favourite to win a majority in the European elections on May 26. The data crunchers have two months to validate government proposals against the suspicion that all this chatter was enfumage or a scam for electioneering.

Talk is for a referendum to legitimate the role of citizens in the democratic process. President Macron needs real carrots rather than social media to sustain voter confidence. Because if not, the interpretation of the Great Debate’s big data risks being high-jacked by the populists on all sides.

[i] See ‘What Next for Democracy’ Edited Dominque Reynié. Nearly 40% of young 18-34 yrs. (lower socio-economic classes) in three European countries think there are other political systems as good as democracy.

[ii] The latest Episode XVII gave an estimated 28,600 protestors with increasingly diverse groupings.

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