"Participatory democracy must continue in these moments of crisis”

Nantes, the hub of Western France, is launching a Citizens’ Convention across the entire region. 80 inhabitants from the 24 towns are invited to discuss the impacts of the health crisis. Their recommendations will feed into the city’s draft mandate. Johanna Rolland, mayor of Nantes, speaks of the need for this democratic exercise which she has chosen to maintain – online – despite the lockdown.

Missions Publiques: Nantes has a strong tradition of citizen dialogue in which elected representatives undertake to be accountable for the use of citizen contributions in decision-making. During your previous mandates, you organised 3 major debates on metropolitan issues. How does this convention fit into this tradition and why this format?

Johanna Rolland, Mayor of Nantes: In Nantes, innovation is at the heart of all our public policies. At a time when we need to change our model to one that is more concerned about people and the planet, we must count on the mobilisation and commitment of everyone. This change requires a vision and a practice of open governance, in permanent dialogue with citizens, associations and experts. This citizen dialogue is a major public innovation that makes it possible to work as closely as possible to the needs and expectations of a metropolitan area, a city, a neighbourhood, a street or a building.

Over the last few months, in Nantes, solidarity initiatives, a mutual aid platform and a multitude of projects carried out by associations, companies, etc. have been deployed. Most of these citizen initiatives are supported and accompanied by the community, demonstrating the ability of actors from all sides to collaborate and mobilise to find solutions together. And at a time when we are responding to the high expectations of citizens and learning lessons from this unprecedented health crisis, it is thanks to a citizens’ convention that we will do so.


Missions Publiques: You have chosen to focus the citizens’ convention on the far-reaching impacts of the health crisis. In your opinion, what can this reveal? What perhaps is the added value of a Convention on this subject?

Johanna Rolland: First of all, it seemed obvious to us to maintain the convention despite the lockdown. Participatory democracy must not be stopped in these moments of crisis. The citizens’ point of view is essential, to complement other forms of diagnosis. Concretely, the convention will work over 4 weekends from November to February, this time is necessary to deepen and give citizens the right conditions to produce a robust opinion. Obviously, health conditions are forcing us to rethink the modalities. The first session will take place online and we are keen to ensure that this is not excluded, and we are taking care of this by setting up reinforced digital mediation.Then will come the time for answers.

The first consequences we are thinking about are clearly the impacts in terms of social life and the upheavals of everyday life. We don’t live the same way today as we did in February. We have had to adapt, to learn to live with masks, to limit our contacts, to restrict our visits to the elderly. But the social consequences are obviously also the direct and indirect consequences of the economic crisis: with unemployment, especially among young people. These social consequences also reveal precariousness, decline in purchasing power and financial instability for thousands of people.

Faced with this social and economic reality, and as local elected officials, we know that our responsibility is huge. We can easily measure what will be at stake tomorrow in order to implement fair and efficient public policies to fight against all the consequences of this crisis.

"What needs speeding up? What needs to be reinvented in order to better live together? To answer these questions, we have decided to launch this deliberation to draw the first lessons from the health crisis collectively.

Photo credits: Martial Ruaud

Johanna Rolland

Mayor of Nantes

Missions Publiques: Let’s take a step back to 6 years ago. What do these citizen dialogues do that you would not have thought would be possible back in 2014?

Johanna Rolland: A collective approach is indispensable for thinking and building the city differently: it is my deep conviction that structures my political commitment. This new approach, which places citizens at the heart of projects, has been a guide to action in Nantes for several years and must continue to open up new spaces for participation.

This renewal of practices requires elected representatives who are aware that the general interest is a common good. A common good to be shared, and no doubt more so. The mobilization of Nantes, the ambition for Nantes, is not the work of our local institutions alone. And fortunately. They obviously depend on the players, the citizens, the residents who are committed to our city. And the least we can say is that in Nantes there are many of them! My role as mayor is therefore to facilitate all these initiatives outside our institutions, by giving more power to citizens to act.

On this subject, we have made a lot of progress in 6 years, thanks to the 200 citizen dialogue initiatives and major debates. This was only the beginning and this mandate will be one of the fulfilments of these initiatives. As I was saying, we will launch the citizens’ convention in the coming days. We will continue, with the foundations of the new solidarities and those of sustainable mobility, because on all these daily subjects, citizens must be at the heart of the reflections. Following the example of the creation of the Council of Future Generations, composed of citizens drawn by lot and with the right to question citizens, in order to open up a space for direct democracy in the City Council. And to give just one example: from 2017 to 2018, citizens, residents, associations and collectives have together devised projects to reinvent 15 municipal buildings and green spaces made available by the City. Today, projects that meet the expectations of local residents and that were born in the minds of citizens’ collectives committed to getting the lines moving are being developed.