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Citizens’ Assemblies – A French Approach to Climate Change Policy

Published 11 Jul 2020
Wendy Hu

On 17 April, 150 delegates met online for the penultimate session of a climate convention which began late last year. Nothing about this appears unusual, except for one small fact: that these were not politicians, but ordinary civilians gathered from across France in an experiment in deliberative democracy. For the past several months, 150 randomly selected French citizens ranging from a 16-year old student to a former fireman, shuttle-bus driver, photographer and engineer, have gathered to hear expert evidence from over 100 witnesses on climate change and its impacts on French society. Their task? To draft recommendations on how to reduce France’s carbon emissions by at least 40% from 1990 levels by 2030.

Despite its namesake in the Paris Climate Agreement, France is falling behind in meeting its ambitious commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050. Only small steps have been taken in modernising transport, reducing emissions from buildings and transitioning away from nuclear energy. France missed its first target in its 2015-18 carbon budget. Annual emissions have only fallen by half the pace required at 1.1% on average. It will need to triple this rate by 2025 if it is to meet its objectives. French President Emmanuel Macron is hoping the 50 proposals compiled by the citizens’ assembly will help it get back on track.

Frustration with President Macron’s climate change agenda, however, stems not only from its slow progress but the elitist methods through which it has been enacted. The citizens’ assembly was instituted largely in response to the gilets jaunes protests which was sparked by the announcement of a carbon tax on motor fuel in November 2018. The tax was castigated as unfair for those living in the countryside for whom public transport options are limited and workplaces a great distance away. The cost of climate action was perceived as falling disproportionally on lower- and middle-class workers whose average incomes have fallen since 2008, while the biggest polluting firms were given a free pass. Although the carbon tax was eventually scrapped, the gilets jaunes protests continued. The fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was intertwined with the fight against social inequality.

Installing a citizens’ assembly was therefore seen as a two-fold solution to President Macron’s problems – to accelerate the ecological transition and to answer the charge that the current French government is out of touch with ordinary civilians. Some of the leaked draft proposals include promoting local food networks, scaling up the recycling sector, a mandatory energy retrofit for the least efficient buildings by 2030 and banning high-emissions vehicles by 2025. Importantly, they include support for job creation, a key concern for those rendered most vulnerable by the shift towards a greener France.

Although President Macron has promised to take the proposals into account when developing France’s COVID-19 recovery plan, how this is to occur is less certain. President Macron has suggested submitting the proposals to a referendum to feature in the Constitution. Two other possibilities are a vote in Parliament or adoption through regulations. The extent to which the proposals are implemented will be decisive to its success.

The French delegates have reason to be optimistic due to strong precedent from the Irish experience. From 2015-18, Ireland’s citizens’ assembly proposed reforms on a number of issues including climate change, same-sex marriage and abortion. More than 80% of the 99 Irish delegates voted in favour of the 13 recommendations on climate change and they significantly shaped Ireland’s landmark Climate Action Plan. It has been heralded internationally for its success by the likes of Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon and activist group Extinction Rebellion.

Nevertheless, renewed faith in the French government’s ability to respond to civilian demands regarding climate action is a fragile one. A remark by a French delegate, aged 45, that “I’ve got back some of my teenage enthusiasm,” highlights how interest in policy making  can be reignited when avenues for direct participation are made available. If the recommendations are ignored, however, the apathy towards and mistrust of President Macron’s administration will only deepen.

The full list of 50 proposals will be made public after a formal vote in July.

Wendy Hu is a fourth-year student at the University of Sydney studying a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Laws. She has previously interned at the United States House of Representatives, a tech corporate advisory firm and Ernst & Young. Wendy is particularly interested in the international financial system, US politics and foreign policy, as well as the different conceptualisations of democratic institutions more broadly.

Wendy is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.