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How the Yellow Vests Have Civilised France

The Yellow Vests movement no longer invades cities every Saturday. It may be finished, perhaps paused, or more likely in transformation. But anyway, it has left a mark on this country, which now seems to be becoming a little more civilised.

Some time ago, I found myself discussing democracy with future candidates for municipal elections. They were fascinated by participatory democracy, and wanted to know more. As the discussion progressed, the prospect that each inhabitant has the right to become a real counter-power disenchanted them. I do not think I’d be betraying their words by summarising them as follows: “We had trouble putting together a list, campaigning to get elected, and people who have remained quietly watering their garden claim to make decisions for us!”.

This is a recurring thought among the elected, I would say even understandable. To make politics one’s profession requires a lot of energy, time, and risk. So, certainly, honour to those who fought and lost, but the citizens who preferred to privilege their family, their work, or their hobbies do not deserve to be granted an ounce of power. This penchant is not specific to politicians: in many social movements it is said that those who do not travel to participate in assemblies have no voice. Otherwise it’s too easy, right? I stay in my bed, and I claim to count anyway.

The trouble with this conception of things is that it corresponds to a spoiling vision – some may say “populist” politics. It is not a spoiler because it conceives politics as a fierce competition where those who give commands are those who have deserved it. The meritorious are those who invest in politics, others deserve nothing but to suffer. A vision where, as we used to say, if we do not deal with politics, politics will deal with us. But this vision is also populist. Populism, for some, consists in opposing the people to the elites. Which exactly corresponds to this opinion: the world is divided between those who take the trouble to win the elections (elites), and the others.

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Of course, it is not surprising that with such a vision of politics, elected officials have become so unpopular in the eyes of the unelected. Tempted to solve this problem, our leaders have invented (with the help, it is true, of some thinkers) a very strange conception that they baptised “participative democracy”. It consists in the fact that elected representatives keep their power but allow citizens to work in their place. Free of course. Participatory budgets, citizen juries, and neighbourhood councils are the instruments. Places where citizens can develop projects, assess costs and deadlines, discuss modalities – all in their spare time. At the end of several working meetings, they can propose their ideas to elected officials who alone decide whether these projects deserve to be pursued or not. Sometimes, when they are generous, they undertake to follow them on the condition that they are not too ambitious.

We can easily understand the appeal that this discovery has had in our representatives. In addition to saving them the effort, while allowing them to retain power, this apparatus has the pedagogical virtue of teaching citizens that it is all well and good to criticise, but that political work is difficult.

But all of this, no doubt, has not helped to reduce the divide between the elected and the unelected. Nor to mobilise beyond a handful of motivated citizens. The reason is simple: what interests people is to get some of the power of elected officials, not a part of their work. And the reason we pay our representatives is for them to work, not for them to command.

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From these simple observations, there is another way of seeing politics, more civilised, and which has been carried by the Yellow Vests movement. In this vision, politics is not a competition for access to power, but a public service whose citizens are the beneficiaries. Politicians are not the bosses, but people who propose paths for the good development of our society. And the ultimate power of decision-making must not rest with a handful of people, but with the majority of citizens, especially those who do not engage in politics but who suffer from it.

Impossible? No. The Yellow Vests have given the recipe themselves. The Citizens’ Initiative Referendum precisely consists of allowing our elected representatives to continue working for the good functioning of our country, while depriving them of the power of decision. Naturally, if no part of society wants to challenge their proposals, the citizens will let the elected officials carry out their projects. But in case of disagreement, it will be the majority of citizens who will arbitrate and make the final decision. In short, elected officials who work, but who no longer control.

This vision of politics is not new, and, on the contrary, it has accompanied the development of contemporary States. The demands of constitutional charters consisted of reducing the power of the king. The conquest of the right to vote consisted of encouraging the rulers to please the voters, so that the policies carried out are a little more in their favour. In general, the progress of institutions has consisted of transforming the State from an instrument of coercion and oppression into a structure of governance serving the citizens. This transformation in France has not yet been completed. The Yellow Vests movement has highlighted what remains to be done and made everyone realise that we can get more rights so that our institutions are more in line with the public interest. With any luck, this civilising process has become irreversible.

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Mediapart, Raul Magni Berton

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