Two insider views into the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate

One week after 150 citizens delivered a milestone proposal to French President Emmanuel Macron, Missions Publiques offered direct insight into the Citizens’ Convention on Climate (CCC) in two webinars. Yves Mathieu and Judith Ferrando, Co-Directors at MP and both deeply involved in the unique deliberation process since 2019, share their vision on this far-reaching, unique, and successful experience.

How did this “direct democracy” movement begin?

Yves, Founder and Co-Director of Missions Publiques, Co-Organiser of the Convention: It started in 2018 when the Yellow Vests movement demanded more “direct democracy” from the French government. In response, President Macron initiated a “Great National Debate” from which two key demands emerged on 8 April 2019. First, the need for stronger and faster measures to solve the environmental crisis. Then, and quite surprisingly, citizens demanded wider participation in existing bodies. They insisted on having greater involvement in existing decision-making bodies.

Two weeks later, President Macron delivered a speech and said he would launch a Citizens’ Convention on Climate. He undertook to respect the outcomes of the Convention. To have the highest level of the French Executive kick the process off like that was a memorable moment for us!

What role did the Economic, Social and Environmental Council play? What about the governance committee?

Judith, Co-Director of Missions Publiques and Co-Organizer of the Convention: Two months after the TV announcement by President Macron, the Prime Minister of France sent a letter to the President of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council – the CESE – the third chamber after the National Assembly and the Senate. It is where NGOs, trade unions and representatives from the economic sphere meet and discuss current affairs. The government is, by law, obliged to respond to proposals from the CESE, which then advises the government and parliament.

Today, a transformation is underway: this chamber will be converted into a chamber for citizens’ assemblies. The CESE will be the first official chamber in the world where citizens’ assemblies are included as part of the national legal landscape. Our intention is to carry out this process. Patrick Bernasconi, as President of the Chamber, received the formal mandate to organize the CCC and established an independent governance committee. This Committee was independent from the Government and aimed to preserve the Convention’s independence and respect its will.

As this was a joint task, I would like to pay tribute to our whole team working on this experience. There were more than 15 moderators and facilitators in total, with Res publica and Eurogroup as our partners and co-organizers. The governance committee met every week for three hours to talk about the Convention, its impact on society and the media strategy. We, as designers and facilitators, were invited to the committee meeting to share our views and co-design the protocols of each session and the webinars (about one hundred 90–120 minute online meetings held in the intersessions with thematic groups and four full-day online sessions with the whole Convention).

“In my point of view, the main difficulty was establishing a proper balance between information and deliberation

Judith Ferrando

Co-Director of Missions Publiques
and Co-Organiser of the Convention

How were the citizens randomly chosen? How did you make sure they were representative of French society?

Yves: The priority was to find 150 citizens who would reflect the diversity of French society and who would be accepted by society. We had tried to randomly select citizens during the Grand Débat National but the method of automatically generating citizens’ telephone ? numbers was the method adopted for the CCC. This technique made it possible to reach people who are not on the electoral roll, including non-EU foreigners, underage citizens, etc.

What about the process?

Judith: Participants met seven times at three-day weekend gatherings in Paris during which we combined plenary sessions and sub-group sessions. In the subgroups, citizens elaborated on the proposals. The plenary sessions were to share knowledge with experts and the state of progress of the various subgroups. The five topics made a direct link between climate change and ordinary life: transportation & getting around, consumption, living & housing, production and work, and the food sector.

Citizens did not choose their topics but were randomly allocated to subgroups. Two platforms were made available. First, Decidim which was open to all French society to include citizens and stakeholders in the process and then J’en parle, Res publica’s platform, which was used by members of the Convention for their internal work and the storage of all documents. It was difficult to give the participants time to analyze all this information and to give them enough time for thorough deliberation. In my point of view, the main difficulty was establishing a proper balance between information and deliberation.

What is the one key element of success and the one thing you have done differently?

Judith: I am proud and genuinely pleased to have used the sortition method at the beginning but also all throughout the process with the five subgroups and topics. On the last day, at the Elysée Palace, we also used the sortition method to select people to speak directly to President Macron. The competence of citizens is real. Sortition works!

The Convention proposed some strong, gutsy measures whose merit is that they don’t come from above but were developed by the collective intelligence of ordinary people put in the role of decision-makers. That is an achievement.

If I had to change one thing, it would be to ask citizens if they are ready to give up something in their own life to make this possible? What are we willing to do at our own level?

Yves: As for me, I am concerned about the length of the process. The starting contract was from October to February with six sessions, but the process was extended due to social conditions and the COVID-19 outbreak. In the end, we had to add two sessions (one online and a seventh session). A Convention is not a lifelong duty, it should be a few sessions over a limited time. This change of contract with the citizens during the process is an issue to be analyzed and discussed for next time. I would have selected another group of citizens for the follow-up of the Convention.

“President Macron’s response on June 29th was clear and meant that the CCC became of major importance for decision-makers. That is when a Convention really starts to exist.

Yves Mathieu

Founder and Co-Director of Missions Publiques,
Co-Organizer of the Convention

How can we assess the people’s plan to fight climate change?

Judith: It is indeed difficult to measure the impact. Each proposal in the final report is ranked as low-impact, medium impact, or high-impact. The good news is that the citizens themselves decided to found an NGO to follow the implementation process and be part of its assessment. Their name is “The 150”. They sent a letter to the President saying they will be watchful and that if he does not do as promised, they would be there to tell French people the truth.

How can we raise citizens’ participation in general? How can we make them more active and convince them they will change something?

Yves: The media coverage made it possible for the Convention to gain political attention. Its openness and accessibility (with live streaming videos for example) and the possibility for outsiders to observe the debates played a role in the Convention’s credibility (you can view the sessions on the CCC’s website). Macron’s response on June 29th was clear and meant that the CCC became of a major importance for decision-makers. That is when a Convention starts to really exist.

We must demonstrate that citizens’ deliberation is working. We must prove that this democratic method has value and that it can enrich decision-making processes. Together, we must put it into practice and find decision-makers who are ready to experiment. What we are experiencing now is a dream come true, Germany is also launching a citizens’ assembly mandated by the German Parliament, similar processes are underway in the UK, the US, Ireland and many more. The mindset of the national governing teams must accept the voice of citizens and respect it. And for citizens, the quality of this type of experience must ultimately become a matter of course.

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