The Citizens’ Convention on Climate

Nessim Achouche

Climate politics between direct democracy and depoliticisation

On 21 June, the Citizens’ Convention on Climate submitted its 150 recommendations to the French president, aimed at enabling France to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, in line with the Paris Agreement target that the country signed up to at COP21 in 2015.

The establishment and outcomes of this Convention can be seen as historic in their own right. While the Convention and its final report are partly a result of and a response to the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement, the way the Convention has been approached and dealt with shows a willingness to depoliticise the issue of climate change.

Unidentified political object

As a citizen assembly, the Citizens’ Convention on Climate seemed to have been given an historic mandate based on a unique direct democracy experiment. In fact, the Convention is the institutional outcome of a unique social movement that began in October 2019. Initially sparked by a few people protesting against a proposal to increase the carbon tax on fuel, the gilets jaunes soon became a mass movement fighting against the neoliberal policies of President Emmanuel Macron’s government.

In response to the gilets jaunes crisis, President Macron launched the grand débat national (great national debate), which promised a great deal but delivered very little. Macron’s aim was to canvas the whole country, listen to people’s concerns and foster public debate, in a manner reminiscent of the cahiers de doléances under the Ancien Régime, except that back then the King would never hear the grievances in person. At the same time, direct negotiations started between representatives of the gilets jaunes and a number of public intellectuals to set up the Citizens’ Convention on Climate.

This new political arena came into being in autumn 2019, its members selected at random to form an assembly that would sociologically replicate French society, with roughly equal numbers of men and women, an age structure mirroring the nation as a whole, the same urban/rural divide and equivalent professional and educational qualifications.

Around the citizen assembly, three structures comprising experts and senior civil servants were set up to prepare and present the working agenda and to assist the citizen body in their work. One of their tasks was to help with the framing and wording of the final document. It is worth noting that one of the co-presidents of the Convention is Laurence Tubiana, who was France’s Climate Change Ambassador and Special Representative for COP21 in Paris, and is CEO of the European Climate Foundation.

Over a period of nine months, the Citizens’ Convention held numerous hearings and meetings with experts, business and finance leaders, trade unionists, and civil society and NGO representatives, in order to be fully informed before debating the issues with a final sample of 183 people.

Results and reception

Five separate working groups were established during the nine-month period, and consequently the final recommendations were split into five categories:

  • Food and Nutrition 
  • Housing 
  • Consumption 
  • Production and Work
  • Mobility

These clusters correspond to the areas in which the proposed reforms, by their combined effect, were intended to achieve the pre-determined targets.

The proposals, set out in a 460-page report, range from renegotiating the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and overhauling the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy to requiring companies that pay their shareholders over €10 million per year to contribute 4% of their dividends to the ecological transition. The citizen body also recommended halving the use of pesticides by 2025 and incentivising the expansion of agroecological practices (an approach advocated by the FAO) to account for 50% of national production by 2040. Promoting rail travel by reducing VAT and investing in infrastructure was another key proposal. The Convention also suggested scrapping all domestic flights for journeys that can be made by train in four hours or less.

A number of lessons can be learnt from the formation and outcome of the Convention, but first it is worth examining how President Macron responded to the report. Immediately after receiving the proposals, he hosted a reception, amid much fanfare, in the gardens of his official residence, the Elysée Palace, attended by all the Convention’s members and a large number of journalists. By a coincidence of the political calendar (or the careful timing of the presidential schedule), this took place the day after the second round of the French municipal elections, which saw major wins for the French green party EELV (Europe Écologie Les Verts (Europe Ecology – The Greens)) and its left-wing alliance (previously detailed here).

This timing allowed Macron to kill two birds with one stone, addressing some of the gilets jaunes’ demands on the democratic transformation of the French political system as well as reaching out to local election voters who had returned green mayors and brought environmental concerns to the top of the political agenda.

Macron’s speech in the green surroundings of the presidential gardens was instructive in many ways. While acknowledging that this was a historic moment and praising the work done by the Convention, he immediately began to impose limitations and to redirect the proposals. He said he would accept all 150 proposals except for four, which he deemed unfeasible for different reasons. One of these was the 4% tax on large companies. Such a tax, he said, would send out the wrong signal to investors at a time when the country needed to attract investment to offset the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Another proposal to be immediately written off was that the principle of protection of the environment should be enshrined in the preamble of the French Constitution. In this case, the president justified his decision by saying that it risked putting environmental protection above public freedoms.

Aside from these outright rejections, it is already clear that other proposals will be revised or watered down, such as the above-mentioned ban on flights, which will only apply to flights between cities that are less than 2.5 hours apart by train. The renegotiation of CETA will be postponed and subject to further “review”, even as EU negotiations on the Mercosur trade agreement are moving at a fast pace.

The overall picture that emerges is of a situation where all the proposed measures that would potentially have involved a change of direction in France’s tax, trade and energy policy will either not go ahead or have been kicked into the long grass by the executive. It speaks volumes that the Convention was not asked to debate the future of France’s energy mix, thus ignoring the ever-thorny issue of nuclear energy at a time when construction of the new EPR reactor is under scrutiny and has come in for hefty criticism for its excessive cost and lack of safety.

Furthermore, there has been no mention of public and private financing of fossil fuel investments by French financial institutions internationally, and not a word about companies like EDF and Total, despite the latter being one of the world’s 20 biggest polluters.

To say that something was missed out is rather an understatement…

Citizens’ Convention or Macron’s Convention?

The fate of the remaining measures is still unclear. Macron’s speech was vague, simply stating that some of the proposed measures would be brought before Parliament in January 2021 as the “Citizens’ Convention on Climate legislative proposal” and that the rest could be passed by presidential decrees or incorporated into a future budget amendment process.

While some of the aforementioned measures are promising and a sign that climate policy has gained mainstream political attention, it is hard not to conclude that Macron used the Convention as an electoral tool.

Climate policy under Macron’s presidency is not immune from what has become known in France as en même temps (“while at the same time”) politics, an expression used repeatedly by Macron in speeches and media interviews in the 2017 presidential election campaign and during his subsequent term of office. The expression, which embodies what he presents as a “moderate” or centrist way to govern, was exemplified again recently during the vote on the Amending Finance Bill, which took place just a few days after Marcon’s speech in the Elysée gardens. The National Assembly, in which Macron’s La République en Marche party holds a majority of seats, rejected all the amendments that would have resulted in changes to the tax rules as well as significant climate protection proposals in response to the looming economic crisis.

The proposed “conditionality”, whereby companies that receive any form of public subsidies would have to comply with certain environmental conditions, was rejected, except in cases where the state takes a direct stake in companies’ capital. The fine for companies that fail to comply with these modest conditions is a mere €375,000 and only applies to companies with a turnover exceeding €500 million. The concept of “green conditionality” has been widely discussed and, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, presented as a way to get companies and sectors with a big impact on the climate, such as the aviation or automotive industries, to make much-needed social and ecological changes.

The rejection of this measure, which would have brought the national budget more into line with the spirit and proposals of the Convention, shows the refusal of those in power to move away from their unconditional support for big business and protection of large shareholders and investors.

The Citizens’ Convention on Climate is undoubtedly a unique political experiment involving regenerated forms of democracy. However, the mandate and scope that it was given by the executive shows that the latter is entrenched in an analysis that refuses to address the real determinants of the climate crisis and its social repercussions.

The message conveyed by this experiment is that we can somehow fix the climate crisis by taking minor measures confined to the national level, not addressing the issue of energy generation and ownership, and leaving climate and social justice out of the equation. All of this under the umbrella of citizen involvement and branded as a new form of climate democracy.

It is quite conceivable that such green/new democracy practices could emerge in other Western countries as a response to the rise of climate activism and scientific pressure to halt climate change. And if France’s example is anything to go by, they could well turn out to be unfit for purpose, and even counterproductive insofar as they propose false solutions for their twin goals of solving the climate crisis and regenerating Western democracies.