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RIP Jupiter: Can a referendum on Macron’s privatisations heal French democracy?

Stéphane Mahé, REUTERS | Calls for more participatory democracy have been a cornerstone of France's Yellow Vest movement.

Attempts to trigger a national referendum – or RIP – on plans to privatise Paris airports have thrown a spanner in the works for Emmanuel Macron. But they may also help the president deliver on a pledge to breathe new life into French democracy.

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In an unprecedented show of unity, Macron’s opponents from left and right held their first joint meeting in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis this week, kick-starting a campaign to keep Aéroports de Paris (ADP), one of the French state’s “crown jewels”, in public hands.

The unusual alliance of parliamentarians, described as “baroque” and “opportunistic” by the government, stretches from the Communists, who want to nationalise private firms, to the conservative Les Républicains, who rather like privatisations but not this one.

Heavily outnumbered in parliament, and sidelined by a president prone to ruling by decree, they have turned to an obscure referendum procedure, known as RIP, in a bid to thwart the government’s plans to sell all or part of the French state’s 50.6% stake in ADP, the world’s leading airport operator by passenger numbers.

The RIP however comes with stringent conditions that make it very hard to trigger, so hard that it has never been used before.

The motley coalition cleared a first hurdle in April by winning the support of more than 185 lawmakers in the two chambers of parliament. They cleared a second obstacle a month later when their referendum bill was validated by the Constitutional Council, to the dismay of Macron’s government.

But another formidable challenge lies in wait: opponents of ADP’s privatisation now have nine months to persuade a tenth of the electorate – a massive 4.7 million people – to sign an online petition backing a referendum. Should they succeed by the March 13, 2020 deadline, parliament will have another six months to vote on their objections – failing which, the nationwide consultation will finally go ahead.

A first, but no revolution

“Considering the obstacles in place, it’s remarkable that the proposed referendum has even made it this far,” says Julien O’Miel, a researcher in participatory democracy at the University of Lille, in northern France.

However, the RIP in itself is “hardly revolutionary”, O’Miel cautions. “It can only be triggered by lawmakers, with citizens coming only in support of the initiative,” he explains. “Parliament regains the initiative even after the consultation. In fact the notion of direct democracy remains somewhat peripheral to the RIP.”

Under the Fifth Republic, French presidents have traditionally been reluctant to share power with parliament.
Under the Fifth Republic, French presidents have traditionally been reluctant to share power with parliament. Chalres Platiau, AFP

According to the researcher, the RIP marks an anomaly in France’s Fifth Republic, where quasi-monarchical presidents enjoy sweeping powers and parliamentary elections are designed to give them a working majority – in Macron’s case, an overwhelming one. Prior to his election, France's youngest leader since Napoleon famously likened the French president's role to that of Jupiter, the lofty king of gods. The sobriquet, used by Macron's critics in a derogatory way, has stuck to him ever since.

Unlike its neighbours Switzerland and Italy, “France is traditionally reluctant to engage in public consultations”, O’Miel explains. “Governments are afraid they will lose control of the political agenda. Hence the particularly restrictive conditions set for the RIP.”

The fact that several of those conditions have already been met, he adds, points to the “formation of a large coalition around a topic of paramount interest to the public”.

A prized asset

Selling the state’s stake in ADP, worth an estimated €9 billion, is part of the government’s strategy to cut the budget deficit and finance a long-promised technology innovation fund. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire says the deal is “essential”, both for state finances and the competitiveness of France’s airports, but the opposition beg to differ.

On top of owning the French capital’s main airports, Charles-de-Gaulle and Orly, ADP holds stakes in a host of other hubs around the world, making it the global leader in its sector, in terms of passenger numbers. It is the French state’s second-most-valuable asset on the Paris stock exchange – ahead of Airbus or Renault – and its strong profits in recent years have made it a welcome source of income for state coffers.

Joël Saget, AFP | An Air France jet at Charles-de-Gaulle airport near Paris, one of ADP's most lucrative assets.

Opponents of ADP’s privatisation say it would mean surrendering control of France’s main port of entry (more than 105 million passengers transited through the Paris airports last year) and giving the buyer a virtual monopoly over air traffic in a region with no other international hubs. They point out that most countries, including the US, have opted to keep international airports in public hands, though the number of privatised hubs in Europe is actually on the rise.

Critics have regularly pointed to the sell-off of France’s motorways a decade ago as an example of a rotten deal that undervalued the asset and resulted in drivers paying ever-higher tolls. They argue that the government would be better advised to use the dividends from its stake in ADP to finance its much-touted tech innovation fund without giving away such a precious asset.

More generally, for opponents of ADP’s privatisation the aim is also to defend the role of the French state in the economy and in public life, and breathe new life into a moribund opposition.

“The nine months before us can lead not only to a referendum, but also to a […] broad union of political forces opposed to the destructive ultra-liberalism embodied by Emmanuel Macron,” said Claire Nouvian, co-founder of Place publique, a fledgling party whose stated aim is to unite France’s splintered left.

Web 1.0

The referendum’s backers have calculated that they need an average of 17,000 signatures per day over nine months to reach the target of 4.7 million. According to unofficial figures put together by data analysts, more than 125,000 signatures were recorded on the first day alone – despite multiple glitches and an unduly complex procedure.

On June 13, the day France’s interior ministry launched a dedicated online platform to collect signatures, social networks were awash with complaints from users struggling with the clunky website.

“The whole site seems designed to complicate the signature and make the process more difficult,” Valerio Motta, the Socialist Party’s former web guru, wrote in a Twitter thread guiding users through the complex procedure.

“Whether or not this was intentional, it’s fairly obvious the government didn’t make the necessary investment to provide easy access to users who are not always comfortable with online platforms,” says Sarah Durieux, who heads the French branch of change.org, the global petition website.

Supporters of the RIP face a tough battle to garner 4.7 million signatures, she adds, pointing out that only one petition in France – calling for the French state to be sued for climate change “inaction” – has ever passed the 2-million mark, and on a far more accessible platform.

“Whether the RIP can get more than twice as many supporters will depend on the capacity of politicians and other campaigners to raise awareness and mobilise votes,” Durieux adds.

Leftwing lawmaker and activist François Ruffin, one of the referendum’s most outspoken supporters, has called for a pluralistic campaign in which voters from across the political spectrum can embrace the subject and express their own particular reasons for rejecting ADP’s privatisation.

“This referendum doesn’t yet exist in people’s minds. It’s got to become the main topic of conversation at lunchtime on Sundays,” he told reporters last week, before quipping: “And if the right can get a few signatures on golf courses or at the Rotary Club, all the better!”

Ruffin and his associates from left and right are hoping they can recreate the heavily politicised climate witnessed in the run-up to the 2005 referendum on Europe’s Constitutional Treaty, which saw people across the country engage in passionate debates.

“Fostering a debate on ADP’s privatization shouldn’t be too difficult since this is a hot-button issue that was at the heart of the Yellow Vest movement,” Lille University’s O’Miel argues, referring to the anti-government protest movement that has staged sometimes violent protests in cities across France.

“It’s a topic that concerns everyone, particularly the peripheral and rural communities that featured prominently among the Yellow Vests,” he adds. “It is these communities that are most hit by the phasing out of public services and are made more vulnerable by the government’s economic reforms.”

Macron’s ambivalence

The battle over ADP comes on the heels of a three-month national consultation, known as the Great National Debate, called in response to the Yellow Vest protest movement. It touches on themes that were repeatedly evoked both during street protests and the more than 10,000 local debates organised across the country: namely, protecting public services and giving people a say in their fate.

While a Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC), one of the Yellow Vests’ main demands, was noticeably absent from the national debate conclusions unveiled by the government in April, Macron has promised to reform the RIP in order to make it more accessible to citizens.

Calls for more participatory democracy have been as integral to the Yellow Vest movement as its detestation of the French president.
Calls for more participatory democracy have been as integral to the Yellow Vest movement as its detestation of the French president. Jean-François Monnier, AFP

However, success for opponents of ADP’s privatisation is likely to further dampen the government’s already questionable enthusiasm for more participatory democracy, O’Miel warns.

“When direct democracy is successful, the response from representative democracy is most often to curtail it,” he explains, noting that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has already hinted at adding further restrictions to the RIP.

While Macron has suggested he may lower the threshold of 4.7 million signatures to 1 million, his prime minister also plans to make it impossible for a referendum to be triggered on any legislation that is less than three years old – a condition that would have given the government plenty of time to push through ADP’s privatisation before it could be challenged.

The government’s ambivalence on participatory democracy underscores the contradiction between the grassroots, crowd-sourced spirit that underpinned Macron’s En Marche movement in its inception, and the reality of its top-down decision-making now that it is in power. That discrepancy was on display during the Great National Debate, touted as a once-in-a-generation chance for the French to reshape their democracy, but which the president soon turned into a one-man show, and channeled with carefully-worded questions.

"There is an extreme paradox in hearing Emmanuel Macron's camp raising the alarm over the prospect of a referendum," writes jounalist Manon Rescan in a column on French daily Le Monde. "After all, placing citizens at the heart of public decision-making was supposed to be a trademark of the French president."

Failure to answer the public’s calls for more participatory democracy will come at a cost for Macron and the rest of France’s discredited political class, warns change.org’s Durieux, describing the national debate as a missed opportunity.

“We mustn’t forget the RIC was the Yellow Vests’ number one demand. There is a pressing need to restore faith in politics, and this can only happen if one has faith in the public too,” she says. “If politicians are serious about healing French politics, then they don’t really have a choice.”

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