"Democracy cannot exist without counter-power”

Marie-Hélène Bacqué is a French sociologist and professor of urban studies at the University of Paris-Ouest-Nanterre. Her work focuses on urban democracy, the transformation of working-class neighborhoods, segregation and empowerment. She is also the author, with Mohammed Mechmache, of the renowned report “For a radical reform of urban policy” in 2013. A remarkable consultation that identified the need for co-development of public policies and development of the power to act and citizen initiatives. Nine years later, what has happened?

Missions Publiques. In retrosepct, what lessons do you draw from your 2013 report and the citizens’ conference you organized afterwards? Are they still relevant today?

Marie-Hélène Bacqué. The first lesson is an element of diagnosis: a strong expectation on the part of citizens in terms of participation that is accompanied by a great mistrust of institutions and politics. The feeling of a fool’s game that marked the whole process of elaboration of the report is still present today. In fact, I would argue that this tension is even stronger. With all the talk about participation and the participatory experiments that have multiplied in recent years without producing tangible results, such as the Great Debate following the Yellow Vests movement or the Citizens’ Climate Convention, there is a great risk that mistrust and reticence will become stronger. The other idea that I retain from the report is that it was necessary to turn the tables, to start from the power of action of citizens and to recognize the citizens of working-class neighborhoods in their diversity and their history. This issue has been reinforced with the increased stigmatization of the populations of these neighborhoods since the attacks of 2015, marked, for example, by the law against separatism of 2021. The effect of this stigmatization and the repressive measures taken against associative circles is poorly measured.

Third lesson: for there to be a public debate, we need “subaltern public spaces”, to use Nancy Fraser’s expression, allowing the inhabitants of working-class neighborhoods to construct and make their own voice heard. At the time of the report, we had created a commission without the central administration and then we organized a citizens’ conference. So that the most vulnerable do not feel crushed, they must have the means to build their point of view first. The conditions for the construction of the word of each person, of each group or collective are a major element.


Missions Publiques. In the wake of your report, the citizens’ councils were created. Their objective was (is) to strengthen the active and direct participation of residents and neighborhood actors in city contracts. The results are mixed. How can we provide the means to build this voice?

Marie-Hélène Bacqué. The results are indeed uneven. Interesting things have been put in place, but they have been carried out in a paradoxical way. At the time, we took the example of Quebec and the neighborhood discussions that aimed to bring together collectives, associations and citizens to work together on the future of their neighborhoods, both in a logic of contention and of proposals. For me, democracy cannot exist without counter-power, both “against” and “all against” in the sense of “doing with”. The notion of “deliberative activism” developed by Archon Fung, that is to say the possibility for social movements to be in contestation and in deliberation, seems to me to be fruitful.

The public authorities had to provide the means, financially and in terms of recognition, for these counter-powers to live. But our proposal for neighborhood conversations has been hijacked. According to the law, citizen councils are created at the initiative of the mayor and endorsed by the prefect. In part, they are composed of citizens chosen by lot. Depending on the city, the system is different; sometimes the drawing of lots is done on a voluntary basis and in the vast majority of cases without statistical representation of the neighborhoods… Often, these councils are set up to last, which can be a problem for the citizens who feel more or less represented. Finally, this system was superimposed on existing systems. The result is that these councils have either been marginalized (reduced to organizing neighborhood parties) or catapulted into city policy steering groups without training or support. There are a few exceptions, such as Saint-Denis, which has given each neighborhood council 30,000 euros to undertake counter-expertise. We had initially proposed a citizens’ initiative fund, i.e. 5% of the budget of representative democracy, but few politicians or parties took up this proposal, even though it was taken up by large associations such as Secours Catholique, ATD Quart Monde or France Nature Environnement.

"It is difficult to move towards a more participative functioning without at the same time apprehending the problems internally and giving meaning to the daily life of the elected representatives and agents of the communities.

Marie-Hélène Bacqué

Sociologist and  professor of urban studies at the University of Paris Nanterre

Missions Publiques. After the consensus conference with citizens, you proposed to do the same with professionals and elected officials…

Marie-Hélène Bacqué. One of the lessons that I drew from this consultation is of course the need to have spaces for participation with citizens, but also the need to build spaces for confrontation with other actors so that these processes intersect. This discussion space did not exist with the elected officials. In the matrix in which elected officials are trained, they consider that they alone are legitimate to decide and that they have the knowledge. They are also worried as soon as there may be a conflict to manage. On the other hand, participation does not necessarily pay off politically. The benefit is neither immediate nor tangible.

What lessons for participation professionals? This questions their posture: for whom do they work? How is it possible to push participatory processes with institutions and to be at the service of citizens? What is the role of citizens in the construction of these processes?

Participation also questions municipal operations. Being a local elected official is not easy in a municipal system that remains very hierarchical around the mayor and while local authorities are seeing their means decrease. There is therefore a whole work of conviction and training, of co-training, to be engaged but also of reflection on the status of elected representatives. In addition, municipal services also play a determining role in these processes, while their agents, especially those at the bottom of the hierarchy, have little say in arbitration. The lack of resources and suffering in the workplace are issues that are present in a whole range of administrations. It is difficult to move towards a more participative functioning without at the same time apprehending the problems internally and giving meaning to the daily life of the elected representatives and agents of the communities. This issue is the same in the police and education sectors. The experiments to improve public services conducted in the 1990s following the Picard report attempted to involve grassroots agents and citizens in the diagnosis and proposals. But one of the conditions was that the hierarchies commit themselves to take these proposals seriously and to respond to them. When these experiments were completed, they made it possible to take into account and put into dialogue the knowledge of use and professional knowledge, to give meaning back to the work of the agents and to give recognition to citizens.


Missions Publiques. You were the guarantor of the Est-Ensemble Local Citizens’ Climate Convention. The process allowed the participating citizens to explore the territory by meeting the actors, including associations. What did you think of this “outside the walls” initiative?

Marie-Hélène Bacqué. It’s an interesting experience, but one that can be criticized. In this region, there is a very important vitality of associations. The logic of participation has been deprived of real proposals that exist at the local level. It is a real issue of recognition and I think that Est Ensemble would have benefited from having another space mobilizing the associative world and of the existing collectives. And to put these two spaces in discussion. Similarly, there have been few interactions between Est Ensemble agents and the conventioneers, and when these have taken place, they have not included the grassroots agents.

This is a more global political issue. How can we move forward in a logic of recognition and maintain counter-powers and the possibility of criticism? How to give a place to these dynamics that come from below and make them meet those that come from above? As we have seen with the Yellow Vests or the emergence of new collectives, society is irrigated by these reflections, well beyond the political world. The meeting and articulation of these dynamics can be conflicting. This is not a problem.

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