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Emmanuel Macron asked 150 ordinary people to help figure out France’s green policies — and now this citizens’ convention is turning into a political problem for the French president.
The Citizens’ Convention on Climate was aimed at calming tensions in the wake of the Yellow Jackets protest movement — which was sparked by a climate tax on fuel — and showing that Macron wasn’t an out-of-touch elitist.
After nine months of deliberations, the convention came up with 149 proposals to slash greenhouse gas emissions this summer. The government has to put some of these measures before the parliament for them to become binding, and a bill is due to be presented in December.
But that’s too slow for many of the convention’s members, who feel the government is back-pedalling on some of the ideas and that Macron has poked fun at them.
Muriel Raulic, a member of the convention, accused Macron of using the body to greenwash his administration.
She supports a moratorium on 5G high-speed mobile technology, which has created some health and environmental fears. Macron has dismissed proponents of the ban as “Amish” — a Christian sect suspicious of technology.
The 150 members wrote an open letter to Macron in mid-October, complaining about a lack of “clear and defined support from the executive, whose positions sometimes appear contradictory,” and to “openly hostile communications” from “certain professional actors.”
Some gathered late last month before the National Assembly to complain they felt used and treated like “guinea pigs” by politicians. In June, they created an association to oversee what the government is doing with their proposals.
The government denied it is using the convention to greenwash itself.
“The president of the republic reminded the citizens at the time he wrote to them [in October] that there can be some adjustments in the drafting, or in the timing of the measures … without undermining the objectives,” said an official from the prime minister’s office, which is handling the citizens’ convention follow-up.
“Our ambition is to move forward fast,” he continued.
Fifty of the 149 measures are already in place, according to the environment ministry, largely incorporated into the country’s coronavirus recovery plan. That includes incentives to renovate homes, buy cleaner cars or cycle to work, as well as pushing for a carbon adjustment mechanism and a greener Common Agricultural Policy at the EU level.
The official said the draft bill including the rest of the proposals is being coordinated among several ministries.
Macron placed the green transition at the heart of the second half of his presidency, so the outcome of the citizens’ convention matters.
Ecological Transition Minister Barbara Pompili said the bill resulting from the convention’s work would be “the great ecological law of this mandate.”
But the whole idea of using a novel form of citizen consultations to supplant the work usually done by elected lawmakers and ministers is becoming a headache for the government.
Ministers have called into question some of the convention’s proposals, especially if they clash with their own agendas. Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire and Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebarri opposed the convention’s proposal to increase an eco-tax on flight tickets. Budget Minister Olivier Dussopt disapproved of a proposal to cut VAT rates for train tickets, arguing “it goes against European law.”
Pompili said it was “logical” that such measures “will generate a lot of debate, sometimes even within the government.”
What’s proved especially problematic is incorporating 150 randomly chosen people into the machinery of legislation and government.
Macron agreed to involve the convention’s participants in ministerial working groups. But this has created confusion, according to Loïc Blondiaux, a political science professor at Paris’ Panthéon-Sorbonne University specialized in participatory democracy and a member of the convention’s independent governance committee.
“It was not foreseen that there would be an intermediate moment between the citizens’ deliberation and the parliamentary decision [to endorse the proposals],” said Blondiaux. “There is confusion because all this is done in a not very transparent way.”
According to an economy ministry official, the convention’s members only met with the minister’s cabinet office but were not involved in the process of translating their recommendations into law.
In these technical meetings, convention members complained they had little preparation to face experienced lobbyists. “These were not dialogue meetings,” said convention member Amandine Roggeman, adding: “We feel that there are things on which professional actors do not want to give in and are immediately in a position where they don’t necessarily want to compromise.”
Despite the criticisms and resistance from insiders, the climate convention has shaken up how policies are made in France, forcing officials to tackle issues they’d sometimes prefer to avoid.
“There’s obviously a communication agenda here, but I think that it also brought real good, useful, social progress ideas,” the economy ministry official said. “It puts proposals under our noses that we would probably not have made ourselves, it brings a novelty on subjects where we’re going around in circles and has the merit of taking us out of our boxes.”
“We have experimented with new forms of democracy and therefore we learn as we walk,” said the official from the prime minister’s office.
The next challenge for the government will be the presentation of the bill in parliament early next year.
Once that happens, lawmakers will have to ensure the process is fair and transparent to the convention’s members, Blondiaux said. “The citizens’ convention was not intended to challenge representative democracy” and parliamentarians “may not follow the citizens, but they have to take responsibility and say why.”
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