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The Great National Debate: a first step towards reconciliation?

Three Questions to Olivier Duhamel

The Great National Debate: a first step towards reconciliation?
 Olivier Duhamel
Former President of FNSP (Sciences Po)

The French President kicked off the Great National Debate on Tuesday, January 15. Launched in response to the protest of the "Yellow Vest" movement, this consultation covers four issues: taxation and public expenditure, the organization of the State and public services, the ecological transition, democracy and citizenship. What can we expect from it? Olivier Duhamel, President of the FNSP (Sciences Po) and contributor on political and institutional issues at Institut Montaigne, shares his analysis with us. 

Is the Great National Debate an unprecedented initiative?

As we all know, our democracies are more representative than participatory, more indirect than direct. Bernard Manin certainly demonstrated in his masterpiece (Principles of Representative Government, 1995) that this binary distinction was partly overcome with the advent of the so-called "democracy of opinion". Doesn't the omnipresence of polls in the public space introduce an element of participatory democracy, even if it is approximate?

So yes - calling on all citizens to express themselves, deliberate and suggest solutions in multiple areas is unprecedented in France and elsewhere.

Despite this, our democracies are not very deliberative - at least for the citizens. They attribute power, every five years in France, more often every four years elsewhere. Some of them answer the questions asked by the pollsters. They do not discuss collectively. They do not provide public decisions. So yes - calling on all citizens to express themselves, deliberate and suggest solutions in multiple areas is unprecedented in France and elsewhere.

The topics open to this discussion cover a very wide range: the ecological transition, taxation, democracy and citizenship, the organisation of the State and public services. For two months, the French, actually all residents on French territory, are invited to meet in town hall, on a market, in an institution, at home, or to express themselves on the dedicated website.

Why was it decided?

For a political circumstantial reason, and another structural one.

The political one stems from the movement of the "Yellow Vests", new, unfinished and popular. Faced with this unprecedented revolt, a rapid social response was needed. This entailed the cancellation of the increase in the carbon tax on diesel and gas - the initial demand of the "Yellow Vests", and the ten billion requested to increase (or to not reduce) the purchasing power of pensioners and low-income employees.

However, the social response had to be combined with a political one. During the May 1968 events in France, the government was able to put an end to the movement thanks to the huge concessions granted by the Grenelle agreements and the dissolution of the National Assembly. This answer was rejected because it would have led to the loss of his majority for Emmanuel Macron, thus the loss of real power. It was therefore necessary to invent something else. This is the function of the Great National Debate.

Faced with this unprecedented revolt, a rapid social response was needed.

To this imperative of the movement must be added another one, which is more profound: providing a response to the deep and lasting crisis that our democracies are going through, the mistrust of policies, the rise of populism, reconciling power and the people, elites and citizens.

The Great National Debate cannot, of course, achieve this on its own. If it succeeds, it could constitute the first steps of this great staircase that is so difficult to build.

What are the criteria that will determine whether this project is a success or a failure?

It is difficult to answer this question, precisely because there is no precedent. Let us first recall some of the conditions for success:

  • that all issues can be raised - this is the case, as has been said and repeated;
  • that all kinds of opinion leaders accept the Great Debate, participate in it and call for participation. Such seems to be the case, only the far left-wing party La France Insoumise and a number of Yellow Vests call more or less openly for a boycott;
  • that the political authorities take the debate into account when it is over. This was understood by the French President in his almost seven hours of face-to-face meetings with 600 mayors in Bourgtheroulde on Wednesday, January 16, where he considered that the last two deadlocks, his own - the ISF (the Solidarity tax on wealth) - and that of the Prime Minister, the 80 km/h speed limit, could be lifted very soon.

Success is therefore possible. What will be the criteria? First, the extent of participation. Lower than that of the Yellow Vests - let's say 400,000 people when taking the peak of November 17: it would be a failure. More than one or two million: we could talk about success.

In addition to the quantitative criterion, there is also a qualitative one: freedom of debate, absence of massive instrumentalization by a party or lobby, and so on. 

Beyond the debate itself, its true, profound success would be that it has made it possible to respond to the two reasons that created it in the first place: an end to the Yellow Vest crisis, and an entry into the very beginning of a reconciliation between the French general population and the elite.

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