Those of us who are sceptical about the worth of citizens’ assemblies have been noting with interest the upshot of the French citizens’ convention for the climate which delivered its recommendations this week. The thing about these assemblies of randomly selected citizens mulling over thorny issues is that they’re a brilliant way for elected politicians to shift the responsibility for really unpopular policies onto someone else. Except they can go horribly wrong.
President Macron used this device to deal with the threat from the gilets jaune, back in those distant days when citizens could actually assemble in France. He had to deal with a movement that was driven by the concerns of predominantly rural voters who felt ignored by the elite while placating the urban young exercised about climate change. What better than to go through the motions of direct democracy to appease the first group while giving the random citizens a brief that would ensure that their conclusions appeased the environmentalists? The convention was asked how to ensure that French carbon emissions would be reduced by 40 per cent in 2030 from 1990 levels.
The upshot was precisely as you’d expect: the convention has come up with proposals that no sane politician would actually want to take to the electorate, especially not in rural France. They recommend closing hypermarkets, shelving the 5G network because it uses more electricity, prohibiting the sale of cars whose emissions exceed that of most current models, and banning hoardings that might encourage people to drive further to buy things. Advertisements, whether print broadcast or online, for items generating excessive CO2 would be banned; those that were authorised would be forced to carry the words: ‘Do you really need this?’. Some of the proposals are decent, such as encouraging the use of local shops over chain stores, but the overall effect is bossy, authoritarian and appallingly expensive for poorer people.
The president now has to decide how to deal with this embarrassment. You see, he made the mistake at the outset of declaring that the convention’s proposals would be taken seriously; they would be implemented immediately, put before parliament for legislation, or submitted to a referendum. That was then, when no one anticipated a situation where the French economy would be shrinking by six per cent in a year.
The problem with citizens’ assemblies is that its members don’t, unlike elected politicians, actually have to deal with the consequences of their breezy and idealistic proposals. In the first place, they are rarely representative of the entire population: in France, 25,000 people were approached to see if they wanted to take part; most refused, and 150 were chosen. Most of those are people with an agenda, who are prepared to give up entire weekends in return for a stipend of £74 (€86) a day plus expenses. In other words, political activists and people with time on their hands.
It was the same with the Irish citizens’ assembly on abortion. As in that case, the conclusions people come to depend on the agenda they are presented with. If the experts who brief them have a particular bias, pro-choice or hardcore green, then the recommendations will reflect that. The Irish body wasn’t presented with pro-foetus experts except as a minority view (you can see the programme online); I’d wager that the French convention was similarly skewed towards environmentalists rather than economists.
The thing about normal democracy is that it’s a way for us to choose people to make difficult decisions about policy and then implement them in law. In exceptional cases, the true direct democracy of a referendum can be used. Delegating these choices to a collection of unelected individuals is passing the buck. Mr Macron now has to find a way to evade the consequences of his idiot exercise. The old rule applies: never ask people their opinion unless you know the answer you want them to come up with, and then fix the process to make sure that’s what happens.