How Participative Democracy Helped Curb the Gilets Jaunes. A Talk with Pascal Perrineau
Camilla Pagani 12 March 2020

Pascal Perrineau is Professor of political science at SciencesPo Paris in France and was head of the Centre for Political Research (CEVIPOF) from 1991 to 2013. Since 2016, he has been President of Sciences Po Alumni. A leading specialist of electoral sociology and political cleavages, he was appointed by French President of the Senate, Gérard Larcher, as one of the five guarantors for the Grand Débat National between January and March 2019. In Le grand écart (The Big Divide), published by Plon last November, he describes this unprecedented political experiment in great detail and colorful anecdotes. In this in-depth analysis, French democracy appears to be fragmented in three categories that hardly communicate with each other: the representative, direct, and participative democracies. An extremely forward-looking piece of research, especially on the eve of France’s upcoming municipal elections that will take place on the 15th of March.


Professor Perrineau, in your last book Le grand écart, you assess the health of French democracy through three main dimensions: direct, participative and representative. How does this tripartite relationship work? Why such a “great gap”?

Until recently, the main form of democracy in France was by far the representative one. It was not contested, nor was its legitimacy. Elections, especially presidential ones, were its momentum. “Direct demonstration democracy” (démocratie directe participante) partially existed, while “participative democracy” did not exist at the national level but only at the local one. However, since the beginning of the 21st century, this representative democracy has become the object of a crisis of confidence.

Most French people believe that it is no longer efficient. It cannot tackle neither the most serious national issues like unemployment or growth, nor international concerns like immigration or climate change. Accordingly, for the last 20 years, each election has resulted in an alternance (Sarkozy, Hollande, Macron). French people have tried almost everything: the right, the left and the “political elsewhere” represented by Macron’s party. In spite of an important abstention rate (almost 50%) during the last European elections, 26 million French citizens voted – which is still significant.

Besides this crisis of political representation, two kinds of democracy have developed. On the one hand, participative democracy, with the brand-new experience of the “Grand débat national” (Great national debate) which lasted for two months. In fact, it continues to develop in a similar way: for example some reforms on climate issues are organized through a national conference where a sample of citizens selected by lottery (100-200) work together on the preparation of law proposals. This form of participative democracy corresponds to the wish for a permanent democracy, which does not stop at electoral events.

On the other hand, “demonstration democracy” or the yellow vests’ movement has been occupying the political stage for the last two years in France. And it is still going on. They have ritualized their demonstrations every Saturday. At the same time, large demonstrations against the retirement reform have been ongoing since December 2019. This kind of democracy is related to a French tradition, stemming from the French Revolution. France has always been a “demonstration country”. There is a fascination for demonstrations. By showing sympathy for the demonstrators, the majority of the population demonstrates by proxy. However, this form of democracy concerns only a tiny minority, a few hundred thousand or so, who call themselves “the people”. Objectively speaking, they are not the people, rather a fraction of society. If there were something like “the” people, it would be the electorate with all its diversity, its different ages, its social backgrounds, and its professions. A French contemporary problem is that this demonstration democracy has stolen the notion of “people” for its own interest. The yellow vests used to say, “the people think that”, but they were thousands in the street and today only hundreds.

The great gap is the divide that has been growing among these three kinds of democracy. Democracy today does not speak with a single voice and its different voices do not say the same thing; so you end up having the electoral people, but also the demonstrative people and finally those who took part in the process of participative democracy. After many studies on territorial or social gaps, I wanted to write a book on France’s political divide.


With regard to direct democracy, you describe the yellow vests as a horizontal movement against every form of vertical representation. Is it an ephemeral phenomenon or a permanent one? A French trend or a global one?

I don’t think it is only a French situation, although there are some traits that are very French. Within the yellow vests movement there are protesting individuals who cannot find access to political representation or media. They live in isolated suburban areas. It was often their first demonstration. Most are low middle class; they are invisible to French society and feel abandoned. This movement gave them visibility. We should bear in mind that the mobilization started because of a reform increasing fuel taxes. It deals with mobility issues, to the extent that it concerns people living far away from their workplace who need to commute by car. A rise in fuel prices is a serious problem for them.

It is precisely this peripheral and invisible France that has suddenly occupied the stage. It has a very diverse political background – left, right, far right and far left. But thanks to the Internet’s horizontality they managed to mobilize outside any organization. It can therefore be defined as a horizontal anti-system movement fighting against all vertical organizations – political parties, media, trade unions and élites.

It is also a social movement based on French tradition, i.e. the French Revolution. Extremists of the Revolution thought that the people should not be represented. The people’s will could only be expressed directly through demonstrations in the streets. Representation was considered a sort of treason. The yellow vests movement illustrates this perfectly. Since they hate representation, even self-representation, they have never selected representatives among themselves. Each time someone emerged as a leader, they “guillotined” him or her. So far, there are few similarities with other movements abroad, i.e. the civil movements in Italy in Genoa, after the collapse of the Morandi bridge. Another new movement has recently appeared on the left side, the “Sardines”.

A gathering of Gilets Jaunes members in front of Le Puy-en-Velay courthouse, last March 9th (Thierry Zoccolan / AFP)


These movements are quite different though, because they are not radical protest movements. Wouldn’t the yellow vests rather remind us of the starting phase of Italy’s Five Star Movement, with their “V-days”, or Spain’s Podemos? And why did the yellow vests not follow the same path, transforming from protest movements into organized political parties?

It is the old extremist Jacobin tradition of the French Revolution. Figures like Hébert or Robespierre believed that the nation or the people could not be represented. It is a French feature, which occurs during social crises and makes the political process very complicated. Without representatives, a movement does not exist in front of the State, companies, business leaders, trade unions. One year ago I saw an extraordinary picture: a young man writing on a wall with a yellow spray: “We do not want to dialogue”. This summarizes everything. It is propaganda by action, as the anarchists used to say in the 19th century.


When it comes to representative democracy, abstentionism reached 49,9% at the European elections of May 2019. “Not showing up” was the French voter’s first choice: was this because of indifference or as a sign of protest?

It is above all a silent protest movement. There are two sides of abstention. Firstly, the average number of electors attracted by “indifference abstentionism” remains stable. Secondly, “protest abstentionism”, when people do not vote as a sign of dissatisfaction, continues to rise. In this case abstention delivers a message of rejection of candidates and parties, of the political spectrum in general and sometimes even of the overall electoral process. This protest abstentionism is very strong, but not permanent.


How do you think that will play in the municipal elections coming up next March 15th?

In the municipal elections, abstention will be certainly lower compared with the European ones because French people have two homelands: France and their town. Municipal elections measure French attachment to their small homeland. There are more than 35,000 municipalities in France. The mayor, especially in small towns, represents a proximity power. It is actually the only power whose trust score is above 50% today.


Concerning participative democracy, you had a direct experience of the Grand débat national as one of the five guarantors appointed by French President. How do you judge this process of “large-scale participative democracy”?

It was an extraordinary experience because it is very rare to assist to the birth of a political institution. Participative democracy already existed but only at a local level – i.e. how to build a bridge, a stadium project, and so on. On important national issues, though, it has never existed anywhere in the world.

For two months, French volunteers were called via a sophisticated system in order to express their ideas on very precise issues: climate change, public service, the State. Although it was completely new, it worked very well: 2 million people participated in this process (whereas only 800,000 to a maximum demonstrated in the streets). They played the game very well, by substituting dialogue for confrontation. In many assemblies I saw some yellow vests discussing with supporters of La République en Marche (LRM, president Macron’s party). This helped calm tensions. Between December 2018 and January 2019 we almost had the impression that we were about to experience a civil war.

By contrast, participative democracy was the proof that French people could express themselves differently. This was an unexpected success. It was very positive and worked very well. It also helped to inform the government and the president. Nevertheless, this work has been completely underexploited by authorities. There is a huge amount of data, everything has been digitalized by the French National Library and is openly accessible. It is difficult to deal with such an amount of material both in terms of qualitative and quantitative analysis. However, this is dangerous because people might suspect that the President used this process in a cynical and instrumental way.

All in all, representative democracy, which today is fragile, needs the help of participative democracy. The latter should not replace the former, because representative democracy has the legitimacy of numbers when it comes to decision-making. Nonetheless, participative democracy can help better inform the choices of citizens and MPs.


Since December 2019 and for almost two months, an unprecedented social mobilization has blocked France due to a mass protest against the national pension reform. What is your forecast for the evolution of the situation? What role do trade unions play with regard to these three dimensions of democracy?

As a follow-up of my research, what is happening now is both old and new. It is old because it belongs to a long tradition of social mobilization. Firstly, pensions have always been a controversial topic, especially this particularly ambitious reform, which for the first time is systemic and not parametric. Secondly, trade unions are not faring very well, but they are still active, even when divided. There are extremist trade unions (CGT and Sud), and moderate trade unions (CFDT) seeking a compromise with the government. There is, at the same time, a rise of moderate trade unionism and a radicalization of extremist trade unions. This latter point brings some new elements. Part of the trade union movement is adopting action modes that are similar to the ones employed by the yellow vests’. There is a gilets-jaunisation of trade unions, in particular of the CGT and Sud. They blocked, they used violence, they invaded the CFDT headquarter. This was unprecedented. In addition, trade unions started mobilizing because their base asked them to act. It is a bottom-up movement like that of the yellow vests. Thirdly, this reform measures the gap between the élite and the people. Ordinary people do not understand this top-down rationale for reform. Finally, there is a lack of intermediary representatives to bridge this gap.

In order to gather people together to make important decisions, I suggest the use of participative democracy and, in some cases, of referenda. If we do not intervene now, France, as many other countries, could spiral towards an authoritarian regime. There is an increasing fascination for strong regimes. Almost 30% of French people would consider the option of having a strong leader in power, without elections nor a parliament. Many young people share this view.


What are the next challenges for the government?

There are many challenges for the government, although some negotiations have already started. Let’s hope that this round of negotiation will end in an agreement. French people are angry like many others in Europe. They are angry against their system of government, against the élites and their representatives. This anger will not vanish; it will find other ways of expressing itself, sometimes in the ballots. We can see it in the high score of intention votes for Marine Le Pen and we will see it in other forms of social mobilization. The government stands over a volcano. The whole French society is eruptive. Representative democracies are difficult to govern because once elected, the rulers become unpopular. Macron won with 66% of the vote at the second ballot, but his popularity dramatically fell after only 6 months.

This is a difficult society to govern. It is a “face to face” society between a president and many angry individuals lacking representative bodies who could cool the rage down. A solution for France would be to implement a real decentralization in order to make intermediaries bodies, like regions, buffers.


Would you suggest organizing some great local debates?           

Yes, we could imagine some great local debates. If there had been a great debate on pensions this situation would not have occurred. But what is surprising from a foreign point of view is the acceptance of strikes. Everyone has a reason to be angry and believe that people demonstrating in the street represent this anger. It is protestation by procuration. We are a “protesting country”: people say “no” before any “yes”!


Camilla Pagani is Doctor of Philosophy and lecturer of Political Theory at MGIMO-University, Moscow. Her research interests include political theory, identity politics, international organizations and museum studies.

Photo: Fondapol / Fondation pour l’innovation politique | Flickr

Follow us on Twitter, like our page on Facebook and share our contents.

If you enjoy our analyses, videos and dossiers, stay in touch by signing up to our newsletter (twice a month). 



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)