People outside France have paid a lot of attention to the sometimes violent “Yellow Vests” demonstrations that have been going on since November 2018, including after the Notre Dame fire. Unfortunately, far fewer people have paid attention to the process the French government launched in response: the “Great National Debate,” intended to create a “republic of permanent deliberation,” as French President Emmanuel Macron put it. Political theorists talk a lot about “deliberative democracy.” The Great National Debate is a political experiment, an opportunity to learn if deliberative processes can help solve today’s democratic crisis.

The Great Debate was a response to a crisis

Deliberative democracy was developed in the 1990s by people like German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Most democratic politics today involves debates among professional politicians or battles between parties. Deliberative democracy instead brings citizens together to discuss common problems, hoping to increase policies’ legitimacy and quality.

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Last fall, in addition to promising 10 billion euros in social aid (including a 100-euro raise of the minimum wage), Macron wrote a letter to the nation launching a “Great National Debate” on four main themes: taxation, state organization and public services, the green transition, and democracy and citizenship.

Many people were skeptical: Was it a delaying ploy by a government in trouble, or a sincere effort to start citizen dialogue? Macron first toured France, meeting the mayors of each of France’s 18 regions in a wave of events that looked more like a political campaign than deliberation.

But the government then encouraged the French people to organize their own meetings around the country, with the help of “deliberative kits” that included procedural recommendations (“don’t proselytize”) and instructions on how to upload the meeting summaries to a public website. About 10,000 such meetings took place all over France. People could also fill out “grievance books” (named after the famous cahiers de doléances of 1789) at their local city halls or leave suggestions on a government-provided public website. French citizens submitted more than 16,000 grievance books and close to 2 million online contributions, ranging from developed proposals to simple answers to a questionnaire.

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Finally, France hosted 21 regional citizens’ assemblies and several assemblies gathering representatives of professional associations. The regional citizens’ assemblies were each meant to include 100 randomly selected citizens, but often drew fewer — probably in part because participants were not financially compensated for their time, although their expenses were fully paid. Those selected were asked to deliberate, over a day and a half, about the four themes delineated by government.

The Great Debate produced both results and controversies

As a researcher, I observed two of the regional Citizens’ Assemblies, one in Rouen, Normandy, and the other in Fort-de-France, a former French colony in Martinique. In Rouen, the participants were much more diverse than in the regular meetings, including young people, unemployed people, people of color and even some Yellow Vests protesters. In Martinique, the random draw came from among only 70 volunteers, skewing the participation, as in the regular meetings, toward older, better educated, wealthier people.

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Because these regional assemblies lasted longer than the regular meetings and the small-group discussions were properly facilitated, they were able to generate somewhat complex policy proposals. In both cases, participants deliberated in a respectful, productive, sometimes even joyful atmosphere. They were happy to have a voice and hopeful about the process, even as they expressed skepticism about whether their proposals would influence government actions.

The most plausible estimates suggest that roughly 500,000 of France’s 67 million citizens actively contributed to the Great Debate, most by submitting comments online. That’s roughly 0.74 percent of the population, a proportion that is in the range of other known crowdsourcing experiments. It produced more contributions than such efforts elsewhere. Iceland’s 2011 crowdsourced constitutional process, for example, resulted in 130 proposals per 100,000 inhabitants. Brazil’s 1988 participatory constitutional process generated 88; South Africa in 1996, 67. With half a million proposals, France generated close to 746 proposals per 100,000 inhabitants.

The Great Debate also had interesting ripple effects, if only in the provocatively named “True Debate” counter-meetings organized by the Yellow Vests and their supporters. Around 45,000 people contributed to the True Debate online forum alone, generating around 25,000 proposals.

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The French government, which spent between 12 million and 15 million euros on it, claims that the Great Debate is a success, essentially on the basis of the absolute number of contributions. The opposition and the Yellow Vests see it as a guided exercise without much meaning. The “guarantors” of the debate, five respected, nonpartisan public figures appointed by the government, recently testified to the transparency and impartiality of the process. However, they and a number of French academics also criticized how the debate left out contentious questions like immigration, as well as how demographically unrepresentative the participants were.

According to a March 19 poll, 70 percent of the French people don’t expect the Great Debate to solve the crisis, and 67 percent don’t think their contributions will be taken into account. Still, 45 percent think the Great Debate will increase citizen participation in political decisions.

Much depends on how the government uses the suggestions. Will they simply be a diversion from long-term problems and the rival demands of the Yellow Vests, or will they form the foundation of the promised “Republic of permanent deliberation”? The Notre Dame fire delayed Macron’s scheduled speech about the Great Debate’s results. But Macron has said he will announce specific measures Thursday.

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France isn’t the first modern nation to try to include ordinary citizens in the political process beyond the mere act of voting and to structure public deliberation in constructive ways. Iceland crowdsourced its 2011 constitutional proposal. In 2016, Ireland’s Citizens Assembly recommended the constitutional reform on abortion that passed last year. At a smaller scale, both Madrid and Belgium’s German-speaking community recently created Citizen Councils to make policy recommendations and complement elected officials’ work.

But France is the first large country to attempt to implement deliberative democracy at the national level on both such a scale and over such an extended period of time. This particular French revolution may end well or poorly, but it is surely worth paying attention to.

Hélène Landemore is a tenured associate professor of political science at Yale University, author of Democratic Reason (Princeton University Press, 2013) and the co-editor of Collective Wisdom: Principles and Mechanisms (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

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