21 March 2024

When the yellow vest movement began in November 2018, the protestors revived an old French tradition: the “cahiers de doléances,” or “lists of grievances.” A series of notebooks were placed at the protest sites, and participants were invited to write down their own reasons for manifesting.

The idea was soon seized on by politicians– first by a group of mayors in rural France, and shortly after by President Emmanuel Macron. Alongside an online platform, these notebooks formed a crucial part of Macron’s “Great Debate,” a public consultation which gathered a total of around 1.5 million public proposals. At the time, a clear promise was made: the notebooks from around the country would be digitised and made available online in their entirety, so that everyone who wanted to could consult them.

Five years on from the end of the Great Debate in March 2019, that promise has yet to be fulfilled. The anniversary has seen a renewed interest in the notebooks in the French press, including a televised documentary. Although they break several of the established rules of deliberative and participative democracy, the story of the notebooks contains some key lessons for anyone interested in new forms of democratic governance.

The yellow vests & the great debate

The yellow vest movement began in response to a planned fuel tax increase in November 2018. Yet it quickly came to stand for a wide range of social justice issues, alongside frustration at a perceived gap between government and ordinary people.

Macron responded to the crisis by launching the “great debate.” In a letter to the French people dated 13 January 2019, he invited them to participate in an open discussion on the future of France. The debate incorporated hundreds of local town hall meetings, as well as an online platform, as well as the lists of grievances. Macron ended his letter with the bold claim that “your proposals will allow us to construct a new social contract for the nation.”

Some critics have suggested the debate had less to do with improving French democracy than with Macron’s desire to calm the protests shaking the country. In any case, thousands of citizens responded to his call, and by the end of the great debate, almost 20,000 notebooks had been collected, with a total of more than 200,000 handwritten contributions.

In the aftermath of the debate, the notebooks were digitised and processed by a series of private companies tasked with analysing their contents. Yet many are convinced that this is not enough to fulfil the promises originally made to the French public – and that it is a long way from exhausting the lessons to be learned from the grievances.

Access to the grievances

In the years since the great debate, a large number of activists, journalists, mayors and members of the public have joined the call for the grievances to be published online for everyone to see.

At the time of writing, the majority of the contributions have been digitised and can be accessed by anyone who wants to see them. But there is a big catch: In order to view them, you have to visit the archives where they are stored. Travelling to an archive is already a big ask compared to visiting a website. But more importantly, there are 101 departmental archives around France, and the grievances are only accessible in the local archive they were deposited in.

This means that getting an overview of the grievances is a huge undertaking, even for a dedicated team of researchers. For individual citizens who simply want to know what others around the country had to say, it is a more or less impossible task.

Among the reasons for the failure to publish the grievances in full are data protection concerns. Specifically, documents disclosing personal details beyond names (e.g. addresses, telephone numbers) cannot be published. This affects an estimated 15-20% of the contributions. 

Nonetheless, many hope that the grievances can still be published in a redacted form. On 13 January 2024, five years to the day after Macron’s letter, Marie Pochon and a group of her colleagues from the National Assembly submitted a resolution calling for the anonymisation and publication of the grievances.  

Rural areas especially prominent

One of the most common criticisms of the Great Debate is that it reached a demographic which already has a prominent voice in French politics — specifically, wealthy people in urban areas. In other words, the opposite profile of participants in the yellow vests demonstrations.

Experts studying the grievances have suggested that they go some way to redressing this imbalance. Above all, they attracted a large number of people in rural areas who are not engaged in mainstream politics, including many older people.

This makes them an invaluable resource for understanding an underrepresented group – but it also makes it especially important that their inputs are taken seriously.

“These people had never been given a say, they had never been asked about their views. And they thought they were going to be listened to and respected,” Rémy Goubert told Democracy Technologies. Since 2023, he is the President of the organisation Rendez les doléances! Founded in 2020, they have campaigned for the grievances to be made accessible in full, and for further studies to analyse the inputs from a demographic that is frequently alienated from mainstream political discourse.

Topics rarely raised in mainstream public discourse

Unlike many participative outreach projects, the topic for the grievances was left entirely open. Rather than collecting citizens’ inputs on a given issue, they were allowed to raise their own concerns. Writing in le monde diplomatique, a team of researchers described the grievances as “proof of the immense gap between the topics that dominate public discourse and the aspirations of citizens.”

“They are subjects that are very rarely covered by the media,” confirms Goubert. “It isn’t immigration or security which keep coming up, but healthcare, education, work, transport. I read some of the grievances in Cantal, and the topics that kept returning were transport and access to healthcare, because there are huge disparities between towns.”

At a time when trust in mainstream media and in politicians is in decline, the contributions can thus help shed light on the origins of this distrust. But they also suggest the need for new forms of citizen participation, in which the specific concerns of underrepresented groups are put centre-stage.

Lessons for deliberative democracy

The great debate has been criticised by deliberative democracy experts for several flaws in its design. Specifically, the open nature of the debate made implementing any kind of consistent follow-up extremely difficult. Furthermore, no mechanisms were introduced to tackle the problems of self-selection, meaning the inputs gathered are not representative.

Nonetheless, the grievances remain an object of great interest – precisely because of how they differ from other deliberative exercises.

Looking back at Macron’s letter of 13 January 2019, it is clear that he already had certain solutions to the democratic deficit in mind. He asks: “Should unelected citizens – chosen by lots, for example – have greater and more direct involvement in public decision-making?” In the intervening years, France has hosted a range of citizens assemblies, most recently on the topic of end-of-life care and euthanasia.

These assemblies allow a randomly selected group of citizens to have their say on a specific, pre-defined issue, in accordance with well-established methods. This is an important development. Nonetheless, many residents of France may feel shortchanged by this solution. What mechanisms exist for them to raise issues that are not addressed by political parties, the mainstream press, or even deliberative democracy exercises?

Once again, trust is a key issue

The grievances suggest that we still need to find new ways of closing the gaps between mainstream public discourse and the interests of underrepresented groups. But their fate also confronts us with an already familiar, yet urgent lesson: Trust is key in deliberative and participative democracy.

“It’s essential to respect the people who turned up, and who really believed in it. I find it horribly disrespectful,” says Goubert. “I saw elderly people, people for whom travelling to the town hall was difficult, and who believed they were going to be listened to. They respect the authorities, the mayors, the President of the Republic, and so they told themselves: the President is going to read what we have to say.”

Failing to deliver on promises risks alienating those who participated, making them less likely to participate again. Publishing the grievances would be at least a step in the direction of restoring that trust.

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