A closer look at the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate
with Hélène Landemore
The Citizens’ Convention on Climate, a first of its kind and scale in France, is about to deliver its recommendations this spring. To take a closer look at how it has been unfolding, the OECD discussed it with one of the experts who has been observing the Citizens’ Convention since the start of the process — Hélène Landemore, a professor at Yale University and expert on deliberative democracy and collective intelligence.
The Citizens’ Convention on Climate is a deliberative process that brings together 150 randomly selected citizens, representative of the French population, for seven weekends over six months and is designed to give citizens an opportunity to propose informed policy recommendations for addressing climate change. A direct outcome of the Yellow Vest movement and a sequel to its first response, the Great National Debate, the Citizens’ Convention’s mandate is to define a range of measures that will enable France to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) in a socially just and equitable way.
A landmark process
According to Landemore, the Convention Citoyenne is a particularly important deliberative exercise, comparable to other notable examples of deliberative processes, such as the 2010–2013 Icelandic constitutional process and the 2016–2018 Irish Citizens’ Assembly. These two processes were firsts of their kind, highlighting the opportunities that deliberative processes among ordinary citizens can offer. However, they took place in smaller, rather homogeneous societies. The French Citizens’ Convention is a comparable deliberative process, taking place in a diverse, multicultural, and populous country, and as such demonstrates the adaptability and applicability of these initiatives to a larger set of contexts. President Emmanuel Macron committed to putting the citizens’ informed recommendations directly to regulations, parliamentary debate, or referendum.
From citizen scepticism to enthusiasm
Deliberative processes are known for their ability to bring citizens together for a shared goal and ignite their sense of solidarity and responsibility. Hence, one of the most fascinating observations of the deliberative process, according to Landemore, has been the citizens’ transformation from session to session. Over time, participants’ sense of scepticism and suspicion has turned into deep commitment, connection, and closeness. By the third session, citizens from different generations and backgrounds began feeling their unity and shared sense of responsibility.
Landemore has observed that the group dynamics have evolved in a way that participants learnt to moderate and counterbalance each other. For example, the loudest and most critical voices were mitigated by fellow citizens and did not have a chance to overtake the deliberation. Meanwhile, those who were more silent and timid were encouraged to express their opinions and were listened to attentively. Usually moderators and facilitators are in charge of ensuring everyone has equal time and opportunities to speak but there were not enough of them at each table for this to happen; it is interesting that participants took it as their own responsibility to create and enforce, however imperfectly, behavioural norms for the group members.
Will the public accept the recommendations of the randomly selected citizens?
The policy issue that the Citizens’ Convention is tackling — how to reduce green gas emissions in a spirit of social justice — is complex, involving many trade-offs and various stakeholders. Given that a previous attempt by government to tackle it via a carbon tax has previously sparked such strong opinions and yearlong manifestations in France, will the recommendations that randomly selected citizens make be well-received by the public and help overcome stalemate?
Landemore suggests the possibility that even though the public did not experience the collective learning and deliberation that led the participants to their final recommendations, the public can still trust the results of the Convention. One way those outside the room can relate to the representative group of citizens, the process, and the recommendations is by following the developments on media platforms, social media, and other communication channels. The example of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly has shown that as a result of good communication, around two thirds of voters in the following referendum were aware that the assembly took place.
No doubt in the value of the Citizens’ Convention
What we can be sure of, according to Landemore, is that involving citizens in decision-making through deliberative processes provides the benefits that come with involving a diversity of perspectives. Using a random sample from which a representative selection of citizens is made creates a group that is a microcosm of the population. Such diversity contributes to the collective intelligence of the group of people working on a policy issue, enriching the outcome. 150 people carefully analysing a policy have a much better chance of identifying all the potential ‘’bugs’’ and pitfalls or inconsistencies than a small team of policy makers with similar backgrounds.
How will restrictions for face-to-face meetings affect the deliberative process?
Currently, the Citizens’ Convention’s final session, planned for 3–4 April, is postponed due to restrictions for face-to face meetings as a result of Covid-19. Participants seem to be strongly motivated to continue their work and are using online tools to finalise the measures proposed by different thematic working groups within the Citizens’ Convention. As the process is coming to a close and participants have already had sufficient time to learn, deliberate, build shared connections, and form a community, these restrictions should not be too disruptive for the final stage, either face-to-face later in the year or online, if necessary.
The current situation, however, raises questions of how deliberative processes can continue in situations of restricted mobility, and what digital tools are available for deliberative process organisers to overcome these challenges. The OECD Open Government Team is currently planning a Participo series about digital for deliberation — stay tuned!