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Zooming in On French Democracy

Zooming in On French Democracy
 Sophie Conrad
Former Head of Public Policy

In 2017, the En Marche! movement emerged almost out of the blue, breathing new life into French politics and confirming the desire of the citizens for a new political dynamic. While there have been a series of innovative political responses and platforms over the five years, these have often come as a response to crises rather than as part of a genuine vision of democratic renewal for France. Signs of disinterest in political institutions from the citizens have confirmed that there is an urgent need to create more open, participatory and inclusive spaces for political cooperation and deliberation. Sophie Conrad, our Head of Public Policy, looks back at the evolution of French democratic life over the past five years.

With only three months to go until the French elections, this article is part of a series that looks into the achievements and drawbacks of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential term. The extended analysis in French can be found here

Key Notions: 

  • En Marche movement - The liberal political party founded by Emmanuel Macron in 2016, formally named La République En Marche !, and roughly translatable as "On the Move".
  • The Great Debate - Le Grand Débat National (GDN) was launched in 2019 by Emmanuel Macron, in the context of the Yellow Vest crisis. It consisted in open citizen debates across the country, presented as a nation-wide exercise in participatory democracy, with the aim of finding solutions to the crisis. 
  • The Citizens' Convention for Climate - A citizen assembly held in 2019 and 2020, in response to the Yellow Vest crisis. The 150 randomly selected citizens gathered to discuss the reduction of France’s carbon emissions. 
  • The Covid-19 Scientific Council - Commonly known as le conseil scientifique, is an independent advisory board that has been tasked with informing pandemic-related decision-making in France. 

Key Figures: 

  • 1.5 million French citizens participated in the Great Debate. It resulted in 10.000 local meetings and 2 million online submissions. The estimated cost of organizing the debates was €12 million.
  • 149 proposals were put forward after the Citizens' Convention for Climate. Some of these proposals were put forward to Parliament, though the fact that not all of them were included generated frustration among the members of the Convention. 
  • According to the The Political Trust Barometer, as of February 2021, 35% of the French expressed having faith in their political institutions, as opposed to 57% of Germans. 
  • The most recent local elections of June 2021 were marked by low turnout, with a historic abstention rate of 65.7%. Voter turnout has been in decline for several decades, but the scores for 2020 and 2021 have been particularly striking. It remains to be seen whether this trend will be confirmed or not in the 2022 presidential election. 

Evaluating the state of French democracy:

  • The emergence of Emmanuel Macron and the En Marche movement seemed to signal a political renewal in France. Unlike in 2007 and 2012, neither the Socialist Party (PS) nor The Republicans (LR) managed to get their candidates through to the second round of the presidential election. Worse still, in 2017 they were only able to gather 26% of votes in the first round, as opposed to 56% in 2012. 
  • The President’s relative young age, his stated commitment to modernize certain political practices raised many hopes for a renewed political dynamic.
  • Nevertheless, Macron pursued a solitary exercise of power, in part encouraged by the highly presidentalist design of French institutions, then reinforced by the Yellow Vests and the Covid-19 crises. 
  • While new consultation methods have been put in place (the GND, the Citizens' Convention for Climate), they have been more of a response to some of the crises that have marked the presidential term than part of an overall plan to revitalize representative democracy practices in our country. 
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