Lessons for democracy when looking at France

by Karl Müller

The French president’s offer to hold a “great national debate” with the citizens of his country from 15 January to the end of March 2019 is – even before the start of the “debate” – more likely a sham package. Emmanuel Macron obviously intends to use modern control and governance techniques to get the citizens under control. The process calls for fundamental considerations.

Drawing too many parallels between different historical epochs is generally questionable. But it can be interesting to take a look at how the powerful of different epochs dealt with the concerns of their subjects, today citizens.

Louis XVI ...

When Louis XVI and his advisors in the 1780s no longer knew how to navigate the heavily swaying ship of the French state in the future, and above all how to remedy the ailing state budget, they had an idea. They called for the assembly of the estates, which had not met for centuries, to help them. This was intended to give the impression that all three estates of society, i.e. nobility, clergy as well as peasants and bourgeoisie could participate in the solution of the state crisis – even if the representatives of the third estate (peasants and bourgeoisie), that made up more than 95 per cent of the population of France, only had one third of the votes in this assembly of estates.
In addition, there was the idea of giving all subjects the opportunity to formulate complaints and submit them in writing – an interesting idea in view of the fact that the majority of people, especially those from the third estate, could neither read nor write. However, the king and his advisers had miscalculated. The letters of complaint were unvarnished testimony to the situation of the people in the country and to the glaring injustice – for the dissatisfaction and indignation had meanwhile spread to representatives of all estates, and very, very many spoke out. The assembly of the estates also dissolved after it had barely met, and the first revolutionary act took place: The tennis court oath [serment du jeu de paume] to give France a constitution and the formation of the National Assembly.

...and Emmanuel Macron

All this was almost 230 years ago, today there are no kings left in France. France calls itself a republic with civil and human rights, it is supposed to be a country in which all citizens have equal rights – and the president of the country is one among the citizens.
However, in the past weeks he got into dire straits by a nationwide protest movement – the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) – and had signalled concessions. Particularly strongly denounced law projects ought to be subject to a temporary moratorium or be withdrawn. Above all: Emmanuel Macron promised a “great national debate” about the concerns of the people in the country.
Now it has emerged that this “great national debate” was not supposed to be an honest dialogue, but a farce, a spectacle. Walter Ulbricht, a German Communist and later Secretary General of the Central Committee of the East German SED, apparently said in 1945, with regard to his strategy for the Soviet-occupied zone: “It has to look democratic, but we must have everything under control”. Emmanuel Macron obviously did the same – but it was uncovered.
Macron wanted to limit the topics of the dialogue with the citizens of the country from the outset and Chantal Jouanno, a civil servant, intended as head organiser and coordinator of the debate – without consultation with the gilets jaunes: She has been president of the CNDP (Commission nationale du débat public) since March 2018. Particularly offensive was the fact that the former minister and prominent top athlete chosen to be coordinator earns almost 15,000 euros a month in her current position as a civil servant – ten times the official minimum wage in France. Now that this has leaked, the coordinator designated by Macron has resigned from her post.

Modern techniques of control and governance

We know this kind of top-down policy – in which those over whom decisions are made should have the feeling that they have made their own decisions – from change management for control and governance processes in companies or administrations, from “future workshops” and the like – Macron wants to try it with the whole of France. A telling detail: In the Elysée Palace, Macron’s strategy towards the gilets jaunes runs under the name “Operation Reconquista” – as the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” wrote on 9 January.

... or direct democracy?

The attempt will most likely fail, and it is plausible that the opposition is calling Macron’s attempts an “alibi exercise” and sees its fundamental distrust towards the president confirmed. Thus, the call for genuine self-determination “by the people for the people” becomes louder. Switzerland is regarded a model. A right of referendum and initiative is called for. It should be possible to dismiss even elected representatives, members of the government and the president himself by a referendum. However, here Macron and his government are not making any concessions. They speak of “agitators”, threatening a crack down on them.

To prevent violence

Louis XVI had no success with all his attempts to remain in power. The history of the revolution is tied to a terrible trail of blood. Switzerland’s path towards direct democracy in the 19th century, on the other hand, was largely non-violent. Yet, it was not given to the Swiss on a silver platter, it had to be struggled for politically – and it was a long way.

Is France not everywhere in EU-Europe?

France’s president and his politics not only find parallels in France’s history. They also have parallels with what is happening in many European countries today. The provocative and quite radical French writer Michel Houllebecq has just published his latest novel “Serotonin” – simultaneously in French and German. The thoroughly irritated life of his protagonist does not have to be the subject here; but the background against which the novel is set has a lot to do with reality: A French peasantry and working class impoverished by globalisation and EU politics. The pattern is applicable to other European countries.
It still seems to “work” when only governments are changed or even brand new parties replace the previous ones in the exercise of power. Macron and his “movement” were make believed as saviours in times of distress.
Now for how long will they get away with something like this? In France, the writing is on the wall. Not only when looking at the protests of the past weeks, but also when looking at how the political class is dealing with these protests. Where in EU-Europe are the concerns of the citizens and their rights as a sovereign, really taken serious?
However, in the long term it will not work out. Taking the citizens serious as a sovereign can only mean living direct democracy. To hope for the political class on this path will not lead us anywhere. For us as citizens it is essential to stand up for direct democracy.    •