Grand Débat National: regional citizens’ conferences to reconnect people and politics

Teams from Missions Publiques and Res publica worked with the Grand Débat mission to run a series of regional citizens’ conferences over several weeks in various cities in mainland France and the French overseas territories.

This initiative fell within the scope of the Grand Débat National and was designed to allow randomly selected citizens to share their expectations on four key themes: taxation, the ecological transition, democracy and the organization of the State and public services.

It was the largest citizens’ debate ever held in France and the most wide-ranging in terms of the topics covered. For Yves Mathieu, co-director of Missions Publiques, the goal was to renew dialogue between citizens and their elected representatives: “People express a genuine desire to talk politics in a non-partisan and respectful manner. They no longer want to be mere consumers of public policy. By organizing participatory conferences and encouraging people to speak up and engage in dialogue, the State is drawing on its citizens’ collective intelligence, and great things come from it!”

In all, 19 regional citizens’ conferences were held, each lasting a day and a half. There were small group discussions between five to seven people, supported by volunteer facilitators, alternating with plenary sessions where the ideas developed were shared. A special conference devoted to youth was also organized, attended by participants aged 18 to 25.

These days were attended by a total 1,404 participants selected via the random generation of telephone numbers and invited to come and air their views on the various themes.

One of the proposals most often cited by the citizens questioned was a demand for consistency in government action and public policies, particularly concerning the ecological transition. “Many participants highlighted the unfairness of certain state measures. For example, they are made to feel guilty about their car’s carbon footprint while a single ferry from Marseille to Ajaccio pollutes more than thousands of cars running for several days, yet isn’t taxed,” said Judith Ferrando.

The question of good quality agricultural production, related to the revitalization of rural areas and health matters, also came up several times. “We would like to see a real effort to revitalize our countryside. We would like to be able to eat more healthily, thanks to local agriculture. For our health, of course, but also to restore the value of farm work,” a participant stated.

Analysis of the regional citizens’ conferences also revealed several important points:

  • Participants view the organization of the State as illegible and compartmentalized, and feel a deep disconnection with elected officials and public administrations.
  • Although the participants did not know one another and spoke from 13 mainland French regions and five overseas regions, there was strong convergence between them and between regions.
  • 230 proposals were put forward in an organized and clear manner, respecting and listening to everyone’s views, and there was clear satisfaction at the end of the meetings.

Ultimately, these conferences emphasized the people’s keenness to get involved in elaborating public and governmental decisions by putting forward practical solutions that take into account their own life experiences, as well as their need for public policies that feel relevant to them, even when international issues are concerned.

Missions Publiques hopes that the government-led Grand Débat will be continued and considered as a step forward for participatory democracy. It is vital if we are to rebuild strong links between citizens and decision-makers, and to bring about healthy and positive public life, adapted to today’s society.

Read more in Judith Ferrando’s column in the Huffington Post (in French)