In France, the idea of involving the people in decision-making is no longer a marginal concept promoted by militant activists. Since the 1990s, citizen participation has become established within local authorities, who see it as a possible answer to the problem of lack of representation. As for consultation engineering, in its infancy 60 years ago, it has become a professional sector in its own right, equipped with robust tools, forged by years of practice and experimentation all over the world.
A way to answer residents with a very strong demand for citizen participation, which finally associates them with the societal and environmental issues that concern them. A practice that has become an essential part of any campaign and of democratic life.
"The city is a place where new forms of public action are emerging, a transformation of long-term governance."
How did the idea of participative democracy come about and how has it changed?
L.B. It originated in the United States in the 1960s in connection with the civil rights movement among American students. It appeared in France on the front line of urban struggles, with mostly young, socially integrated populations demanding the right to scrutinise the making of the city. This was at a time when dozens of Municipal Action Groups were springing up in France and Hubert Dubedout, elected mayor of Grenoble, was experimenting with new forms of institutions. While 1968 was the focal point of this demand to have a say, the 1980s were marked by a crackdown and a real step backwards.
The idea of citizen participation was marginalised and dismissed.
It made a comeback in the second half of the 1990s but emerged from quite different sources. The World Bank, the European Union and Romano Prodi’s White Paper invoked the essential need for participation. Other contributions from Latin America (the anti-globalisation movements) helped spread this idea and the renewal became a fundamental movement, all the more powerful because at the same time there was an erosion of government legitimacy, a rise in voter abstention and an increase in protests against major developments such as the TGV Méditerranée rail link. Faced with resistance to this project from local elected officials, farmers and environmental associations, the State started to think about a process for legislating on this issue of citizen consultation and participation.
Has citizen participation become the norm today, at the local level?
L.B. As far as words are concerned, yes. And often in practice, too. These approaches have become very widespread. This is demonstrated by the increasing number of job offers for consultation engineers.
These practices are mature, we know how to involve citizens and create collective intelligence.
Cities are at the forefront of this transformation. Why is that?
L.B. It is easier to involve residents in issues that concern them: with an educated, available and demanding population, cities have a pool of citizens willing to get involved, which is not always the case in suburban or rural areas.
Furthermore, the city is a place where new forms of public action are emerging, a transformation of long-term governance. It is fragile, with some experiments not surviving changes in power after local elections, but it is more robust than at regional or national level.
The term “participative democracy” appeared in the United States, first within the student movements fighting for civil rights and then extended to other struggles, notably concerning major development projects and urban renewal.
One year after his election to the city hall of Porto Alegre (Brazil), the new mayor launched the first participative budget in the world. This innovation was to become a benchmark for citizenship policy.
In France, the national commission for public debate (CNDP) was created to take better account of the public’s point of view in decision-making on regional development. The first public debate organised in 1997, was on the “Le Havre, Port 2000” project.
The “local democracy” law imposed the creation of neighbourhood councils in all cities with over 80,000 residents. As early as 1999, the Voynet law had established development councils at the inter-communal level.
Article 7 of the Environment Charter asserted the right of any person to access environmental information held by public authorities and to take part in public decision-making with an environmental impact.
The French Prime Minister entrusted Patrick Bernasconi, chairman of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE), with a citizen participation assignment. He notably asked him to develop scenarios for institutional change that would allow citizen participation to find its place in institutions.
All working together
In Paris, RATP Group, in partnership with the City of Paris and the city hall of the 20th arrondissement, launched a citizen consultation on the urban project “Belgrand – Saint-Fargeau”. This participative approach is part of the Group’s DNA: as early as 2016, it invited passengers to submit their suggestions for shops and services, in order to identify their expectations. More recently, in 2020, the Group developed its driving purpose by gathering over 138,000 contributions from employees and external stakeholders.