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Democratic Innovation and Citizen Participation: The French example

The challenges posed by the ecological and energy transitions require the contribution and involvement of as many people as possible. Without it, no change commensurate with the contemporary challenges can be achieved.

With the increased demand and a policy of accelerating transitions, what place do citizens have in the decision-making process? More generally, what role can citizen participation and democratic innovation play to help address, what Habermas calls a triple crisis in the legitimacy[1], rationality and effectiveness of our democracies? And how can we revitalise our democracy through new approaches?

These transitions require active participation. It is important for the people affected to have a say in decisions that impact them, both for democratic and environmental reasons. We must involve as many people as possible to achieve genuine change[2].

Concerning participatory democracy, it is interesting to look at the French model of decision-making sharing process in environmental field. What is so special about this French model? What role can it play today, given the need to both avoid delaying the transition and to avoid weakening democracy?

Public debates: A French peculiarity

France has a long tradition of public debate, which is not just about the French inclination for “talking politics” and having a dynamic public sphere. Above all, this tradition concerns practices that aim to give the public, the citizens, a voice in the decisions impacting them.

More than 25 years ago, the French Government was one of the first in Europe to introduce a procedure known as “public debate” in the environmental field. The idea was both simple and ambitious: to enable everyone to be informed and to participate in decisions on projects and policies that have an impact on their living conditions and on the environment. 

Three factors led French legislators in the 90s to institutionalise this participatory democracy: the ecological and representation crises that have emerged through several European and Western democracies from the 80s onwards; the upsurge in environmental conflicts; and international injunctions, such as France’s signature of the Aarhus Convention (1998), which implied that respect for the right to information, participation and access to justice should be reflected in domestic environmental legislation.

Since 1995, when public debate and the National Commission for Public Debate (CNDP) were created, this procedure has undergone several reforms and has grown to become one of the pillars of French environmental democracy and a highly ambitious model of participatory and deliberative democracy.

The public debate was originally a legal procedure straddling the line between political and administrative logic. Behind this legal tool was the French legislator’s conviction that it was appropriate, fair and legitimate to share with public the decisions on big projects structuring the country.

If we look at the six principles on which the CNDP relies to guarantee the public’s right to be informed and participate (independence, neutrality, transparency, equal treatment of everyone’s voice, argumentation of points of view, inclusion of all sections of the public), we realise that we are not just dealing with a simple procedure, but rather and above all with a “democratic exercise” in itself.

Of the CNDP’s various missions, three are particularly important and illustrate the distinctive nature of the French model of participatory democracy:

  1. The first is to guarantee the right to information: the CNDP ensures that full, accessible, plural, contradictory and intelligible information is offered to the public whenever it is called upon to express its views. The right to information is the bedrock of democracy.
  1. The second mission is to guarantee effective participation by everyone: to achieve this, the CNDP has over the years developed solid expertise in developing principles and methodologies that enable it to identify the publics most affected by the big projects or environmental public policies. This further incorporates factors to ensure the effective inclusion of those who are furthest removed from public affairs, effective collective deliberation, and to link online and face-to-face participation mechanisms. This mission is based on more than 25 years of experience and experimentation in the field. Ten years ago, the CNDP set up the first deliberative citizens’ assemblies and online consultation platforms in France. It is to the CNDP that we owe the mobile debates (in markets, on trains), the debate caravans, the kits for local initiative meetings, but also the use of virtual reality in debates on highly territorial projects or the method of clarifying controversies in the case of highly conflicting subjects. All this has given rise to numerous innovations in participatory practice.
  1. The third mission is to convey the public’s views to decision-makers, to give an exhaustive and accurate account of the public’s points of view, proposals, fears, expectations and questions, without counting or judging them. The aim is to give a voice to citizens, who will thus see their contribution faithfully reported to the decision-maker. Decision-makers, whether public or private, must answer CNDP reports. So, those who take part know that they will receive a well-argued response and that the CNDP is the guarantor of this.

This “French peculiarity” – based on the guarantee of an independent third party, on appropriate and rigorous principles and methods, and on controlled accountability – makes the French model of institutional participation not only accountable, which is the basis of democracy, but also effective. More than 64% of the projects submitted to a CNDP public debate are modified according to the orientations expressed by the public. Only very few European countries have set up such a system of citizen dialogue, giving it legal status, with the Regional Authority of Participation in Tuscany, Italy coming to mind. This is a strong political and democratic ambition that must be preserved and developed by adapting it to current challenges.

There is no ecological transition without a democratic transition

In an age marked by the emergence of new rights and new forms of political involvement outside the traditional parties, the French model of participatory democracy embodied by the CNDP is particularly well suited to today’s world and to the challenges posed by the ecological and democratic transitions.

The rights to information and participation fit perfectly into the contemporary framework of new legal rights (of nature, of future generations, of living entities), they are already operational and effective tools for debating collectively on the major decisions that have an impact on the environment, resources and future technologies. These rights are all the more necessary because we can neither delay the transition nor undermine democracy.

Faced with the crisis of mistrust and the need to intercept the new frames for citizens’ political participation, the example of public debate also has a role to play. Today, one of the challenges for a country like France, which dared to embrace participation 25 years ago, is to take the public debate procedure out of the strict domain of ecological transition and turn it into a genuine method of government that can be applied to other areas of public life. In doing so, it could support the drive to reinforce trust in all spheres of government.

Ecological and energy transition, sobriety, reforms capable of accompanying changes in individual and collective behaviour are all areas that above all raise a “democratic question”: at what cost? What does it change for individuals and for society? Thinking about transitions from a primarily democratic point of view is not only a question of innovation, but also a way to build more effective, more lasting and more socially feasible collective responses

In a democracy where the rules of the game need to be adapted to the new challenges, the French model of public debate appears to be a valuable asset for moving towards a successful participatory transition.

This guest blog is inspired by the Global Trends in Government Innovation 2023 report from the OECD and MBRCGI. The report presents four major trends in government innovation for 2023, including Trend 4 on new ways of engaging citizens and residents. Through this blog series, we hope to provide a deeper understanding of the current state and future direction of government innovation, and generate conversations about how governments can continue to improve and innovate in the years ahead.

[1] Habermas, Jürgen (1975) Legitimation Crisis, Boston, Beacon Press (translated from the German by Thomas McCarthy).

[2] AUGAGNEUR Floran, CASILLO Ilaria, « Postface. Démocratie et environnement. Pour une délibération participative », dans : Jean-Michel Fourniau éd., La démocratie écologique. Une pensée indisciplinée. Paris, Hermann, « Colloque de Cerisy », 2022, p. 391-408. DOI : 10.3917/herm.fourn.2022.01.0391. URL :–9791037015365-page-391.htm