Citizen’s Assembly

The Citizens' Convention for the Climate came out of political strife in France.

France's president gave ordinary people the power to formulate national climate policies. He got more than he bargained for

Picture this: It’s summer holidays and you’re sunning yourself on a beach when your phone pings.

It’s a text message, all caps, asking you to take part in your country’s biggest democratic experiment in years.

f you accept, for the next nine months you’ll be learning about climate change and coming up with the nation’s policy solutions.

Do you say yes?

That’s what happened to Amandine Roggeman in 2019.

Months earlier, at a political standstill over climate policy, French President Emmanuel Macron had announced that 150 citizens would be asked to learn about the issue, investigate the policy options, and then submit their policy recommendations.

Crucially, he also promised to introduce their policies “sans filtre” — unfiltered.

Here’s what happened when a diverse group of non-politicians, free from stakeholder interests and re-election pressures, were put in charge of a nation’s climate change policies.

France’s political roadblock

The Citizens’ Convention for the Climate came out of political strife in France.

A nationwide protest movement called the “gilets jaunes” — or yellow vests — had brought the country to a standstill.

It started out as a protest against rising fuel prices, partly caused by a carbon tax, but quickly grew into a revolt against President Emmanuel Macron and his government.

President Macron needed to show the people he was listening to their needs. He toured the country, introduced new measures. And, critically, he promised that from now on that citizens in France would be more involved in making big decisions.

He introduced a “citizens’ assembly” — often called deliberative democracy or mini-publics. They operate like juries, where randomly-selected citizens come together as representatives of the people, and are tasked with finding solutions for difficult political issues.

Macron called this one the Citizens Convention for the Climate, and its task was to figure out how France could cut its carbon emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030.

The citizens assembling

At first, Amandine couldn’t believe she had been selected.

“I felt really like [I had] a citizen’s duty. I mean, your country’s asking something that is really meaningful for the community. I felt I had to do it,” she said.

“I said yes… it took me two hours to say yes.”

Amandine Roggeman threw herself into the experiment in deliberative democracy.(Supplied: Katrin Baumann / Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat)

About 255,000 people were initially contacted about participating in the convention. From there, the final 150 were selected to represent a cross-section of the French population across their age, gender, education level, socio-professional category, French geographical region, and type of area they lived in (metro, suburban, or rural).

“We were young people. A lot of old people, retired people, from the countryside and having done really different jobs in their lives. And that was really powerful,” Amandine said.

This diversity is what sets citizens’ assemblies apart from parliaments in representative democracies, says Nicole Curato, a professor of political sociology at the University of Canberra.

“A citizen assembly represents the microcosm of society. It represents ordinary people.

“We meet a diversity of people and we come to recognise the different considerations of people coming from different backgrounds when we try to craft solutions together and that doesn’t happen all the time.”

About 255,000 people were initially contacted about participating in the convention. From there, the final 150 were selected to represent a cross-section of the French population across their age, gender, education level, socio-professional category, French geographical region, and type of area they lived in (metro, suburban, or rural).

“We were young people. A lot of old people, retired people, from the countryside and having done really different jobs in their lives. And that was really powerful,” Amandine said.

This diversity is what sets citizens’ assemblies apart from parliaments in representative democracies, says Nicole Curato, a professor of political sociology at the University of Canberra.

“A citizen assembly represents the microcosm of society. It represents ordinary people.

“We meet a diversity of people and we come to recognise the different considerations of people coming from different backgrounds when we try to craft solutions together and that doesn’t happen all the time.”

climate-assembly2

Outrage from some experts

Not everyone thought the convention was a great idea at first.

When environmental economist Louis-Gaeten Giraudet heard the announcement on the radio, he was personally offended that the government was bringing in “amateurs” to give advice on his field of expertise.

“My first reaction was ‘What the hell is this?'”

“There are people like me working on designing fair and effective policies, and the government is going to pick randomly 150 people and ask them to do just what we’ve been doing for over 10 years? I didn’t see the point.”

Louis-Gaëtan Giraudet
Louis-Gaëtan Giraudet.(Supplied: Louis-Gaëtan Giraudet)

But he was also curious. He’d spent so much of his time developing fair and effective policies to curb emissions, only to watch governments and citizens reject them. Would this be the end to that impasse?

Dr Giraudet signed up as one of the official observers for the convention, and it didn’t take long for him to change his mind.

“I was soon very passionate about it.”

Asking “amateurs” for policy advice has one big advantage over the standard route of going to the experts, said Professor Curato.

Non-experts can encounter a problem without preconceived ideas – and this can lead to unexpected new solutions.

“If you’re a climate economist, you will only see the problem from an economic perspective. If you’re a climate scientist, you only see the problem from a scientific perspective,” she said.

“Experts don’t have the monopoly of good answers.”.

How the convention operated

The convention ran over seven three-day weekends for nine months.

It started with a crash course in climate change, presented by the best French experts, to get all the citizens up to speed on the latest science.

Just like any cross-section of society, their knowledge of climate change varied across the group, and Dr Giraudet said these lectures had an immediate impact on the group.

“These were a big shock for many of the participants. Some claim that they came as climate sceptics and after these lectures, they completely changed their mind.”

Then, the citizens were split into five working groups that would go deep on one area of French society that required decarbonisation: housing; production and labour; food; transport; and consumption.

Amandine was in the consumption group.

“So working mostly on like, ‘How do you buy things? Why do you buy things, what is the role of publicity, and what advertising has to do with climate change and how it can impact our behaviours as consumers?'” Amandine said.

Over the next few sessions they were able to interrogate leading experts in their field, examine existing research, debate, and develop their own policies for how to reduce emissions in this space.

The final policies

After nine months, the convention had a report the size of a Bible outlining 149 policy measures to hand to President Macron.

The policies were bold.

There was a ban on building new airports, scrapping flights where you can drive or take public transport in under four hours, speed limit reductions, a pause on all international trade negotiations so France could write in environmental conditions. There was also a policy to make ecocide a crime.

And it was all to be funded with a tax on big corporations.

Amandine’s group also suggested a ban on advertising for carbon-intensive products.

“For example, cars, we didn’t understand why it was still allowed to have advertising [for] big fuel cars. So we wanted to forbid this kind of publicity.”

It’s unclear what kind of policies President Macron was expecting a group of informed citizens to produce, but his next move indicated that he wasn’t anticipating these policies.

Macron’s three jokers

When Macron gave a press conference after accepting the policy proposals from the citizens’ convention, he said again he would introduce the measures “sans filtre”, but there was a catch.

Macron gave himself three “jokers”. Meaning he would strike out three of the policies before him.

It was the first the assembly had heard of the jokers.

“The citizens were a bit surprised by this. A bit disappointed, of course,” said Dr Gaeten, who was an official observer.

Amandine said she’d expected to be disappointed.

“I know a bit about the political field in France. I’m not so naive about it.”

The proposed policies he would veto were:

  • Reducing speed limits
  • Taxing big corporations to pay for the proposed measures
  • Introducing a crime of ecocide that would make the head of a company criminally responsible for acts of environmental destruction, such as an oil spill

France would have been the first country in the world to make ecocide a crime. Instead, Macron promised to make ecocide a less-serious “offence”.

The citizens’ assembly had the option of taking all their policies to a referendum, but they opted for them to be introduced through the French parliament instead.

But as the bill made its way through parliament, more of the policies were tinkered with and watered down.

The proposed ban on flights for trips under four hours became a ban on trips under two-and-a-half hours.

The proposed ban on ads for carbon-intensive products, like petrol cars, became warning messages to consumers.

Climate organisations accused politicians of failing to deliver on what they had promised the assembly.

Was it a success in the end?

For Dr Giraudet, the citizens’ assembly highlighted the problem it was trying to address — the divide between everyday people and politicians when it comes to climate change.

“It makes even more transparent the gap between the people’s expectations and what the political parties and governments are able to do.”

Amandine was disappointed with what happened to their policies, but didn’t consider it a failed experiment and wanted to see more citizens’ assemblies.

The assembly also made waves in French society. The 149 measures put radical ideas for climate policy on the table. It became pub talk and dinner party conversation.

This was something experts couldn’t achieve on their own, Dr Giraudet said.

“Just mentioning the fact that this was proposed by the assembly legitimises it in the public debate.”

Professor Nicole Curato also saw it as a successful experiment.

“It’s a proof of concept that ordinary citizens can be trusted to make intelligent decisions.”

Just two months ago, France introduced the world’s first fossil fuel advertising ban.

It’s not as far-reaching as what Amandine and others proposed, but there’s a resemblance.

Amandine is still passionate about the assembly experiment and wants other countries to bring everyday people into the decision-making process more.

“It raises awareness on a topic like climate … but it’s also a way to create consensus within the society. And that’s really I think that’s really important.”

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