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The Yellow Vests movement and the urge to update democracy

El movimiento de los chalecos amarillos y la urgencia de actualizar la democracia

Paula Forteza |

In its last National Action Plan, France committed to 21 engagements for a more transparent and collaborative government. The Yellow Vests movement proves (once again) that it is urgent to implement our engagements with the Open Government Partnership to improve the Government’s accountability to citizens, empower citizens as active stakeholders and public decision participants, and provide better services to users.

The Yellow Vests movement in France is a complex social movement that points out social injustices from a political system that has excluded voices for decades. The movement shows the negative effects of the lack of participatory mechanisms in our institutional architecture. If the Yellow Vests are protesting in the streets today, it is certainly because an institutional dialogue was not possible, because their claims did not find an official channel of communication to reach the decision makers.

The inception of this movement is also symptomatic of the need to update our democracies. Organized through Facebook groups, the Yellow Vests is a leaderless movement that is challenging the hierarchical and vertical organization of the decision-making process. We need a more horizontal, agile and decentralized democracy to match the way civil society is getting organized on the internet. Social media platforms are not made for political mobilisation, as the rise of fake news, polarisation and foreign intervention have showed. Learning from these social media flaws, we can back an institutional change with the creation of dedicated platforms for political expression that are transparent, accountable and democratically governed.

Our reaction to this crisis needs to match the expectations. It is urgent to revitalise our democracies through a robust and impactful set of participatory initiatives. We have in our hands the future of the social contract and, in a way, the future of our democracy. Some initiatives have emerged in France: citizen questions to the government, legislative consultations, a collaborative space in the Parliament, more than 80 local participatory budgets and dozens of participatory experimentations. We need to scale up many local initiatives and include impactful and continuous participatory mechanisms into the institutional decision-making process. A constitutional reform is expected in France next January – let’s take this opportunity to institutionalize these mechanisms.

A set of Constitutional and legal principles to strengthen citizen trust and participation.

The Yellow Vests movement is the expression of the lack of trust in our democratic institutions. A recent study shows that just 30% of French citizens trust their elected representatives (President and Parliamentarians) and 61% think that our democracy is dysfunctional. But even with high rates of abstention, 78% still believe that even flawed democracy is still the best system. We urgently need to bring citizens back into democratic institutions and regain their trust, as democracy is the only equal and peaceful arena for political deliberation and representation. Responding to this distrust, French President Emmanuel Macron recognized the “scratch vote” as a new democratic expression.

One year ago, I proposed the inclusion of citizen participation as a constitutional right, with Parliamentarians as guarantors[1]. These constitutional principles will obviously not solve the democratic crisis we are confronted with, but they will legitimize citizen demands for impactful participation mechanisms and set the legal framework for a stronger participatory democracy. We will need to complement these constitutional principles with non-legal support like public funding and civic education.

A petition mechanism to include citizens in our institutional architecture.

The Yellow Vests movement started with an online petition that reached more than 1 million supporters. Citizens are actively participating in online deliberation forums name it Facebook, Twitter, Change.org, Make.org, Reddit. But none of those are institutionalized, so their voices are not taken into account in official democratic deliberative spaces. What if this petition had been addressed to the Parliament, discussed by its members and taken into account in the fiscal discussions before the vote of the fuel tax that sparked the protests?

We need to review the petition mechanism to strengthen its institutional impact and to simplify its procedure. This participatory, bottom-up mechanism can allow citizens to influence the agenda setting of the Parliament and thus have a concrete impact on the institutional decision making. 62% of French citizens think that we should have referendums on major policy decisions. We need to address this demand for citizen participation by having a serious conversation on the framework and the procedure.

A participative mechanism for a fairer fiscal policy.

The Yellow Vests movement is urging the government – and us – to review the fiscal system and the public spending priorities. We need to bring citizens into fiscal discussions in order to build a fairer tax system and thus, a new social contract. The implementation of a national participatory budget could answer some of the Yellow Vests’ claims and make our fiscal system and public spending more transparent, collaborative and representative. This new type of collaborative policy making can renew the relationship between citizens and elected representatives and foster a national debate on taxation and social justice. We could imagine the creation of a participatory budget with targeted fiscal revenues, like the fossil fuels tax or the proposed digital tax. This will give us, as citizens, a voice on how we want to face the ecological transition or the digital revolution, together, as a democratic society.

France is not the first country, and it won’t be the last, to confront social discontent. Around the world, societies are urging for a democratic renewal, as we have seen during the Sunflower Movement in Taïwan, the indignados in Spain or the political scandals in Estonia. Those movements were translated into effective democratic participation online and offline. In Taiwan, the government opened up decision-making process on significant and controversial issues, In Madrid, the platform Decide Madrid gives citizens the opportunity to suggest news laws. In Rahvakogu, citizens can crowdsource ideas and proposals related to the future of democracy in Estonia. Today, we have the opportunity to update democracy in France by transforming the social discontent seen in the Yellow Vests protests into constructive change


[1] Practically this will mean adding a new principle to the first article: “The law guarantees the participation of citizens in the enactment of public norms and the development of public policies” and a new parliamentarian mission to the article 24: “Each of its members [of parliament ndlr] promotes the participation of citizens in the public life.” For more information : http://www2.assemblee-nationale.fr/static/reforme-an/democratie/Rapport-1-GT6-democratie.pdf

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