-OpEd-

PARIS — In the sometimes cacophonous concert of demands from France's "yellow vests" protest movement, one measure keeps coming back: the Référendum d'initiative citoyenne (RIC), or "Citizens' Initiative Referendum," which allows individual citizens to submit a legislative text to a popular vote, and to thus express their opinions in the ballot box rather than just via their Facebook accounts.

This request is an expression of a legitimate critique of the current French presidential system, in which the chances for citizens to make their voices heard are rare: Every five years, a quasi-monarch is elected on his good looks, secures a majority in Parliament, and we're left with the opinion columns or the street to voice our protest. The Fifth Republic turns us citizens into eternally cranky children. At a time when so-called "disintermediation" is sweeping away traditional economic sectors, there's no reason why the same disintermediation shouldn't emerge in the political arena, by giving citizens the means to express themselves directly. Basically, the Citizens' Initiative Referendum would be in line with the democracy Jean-Jacques Rousseau dreamed of, one in which "everyone steals from the assemblies" — including digitally.

Representative democracy has become obsolete.

But the question posed by the Citizens' Initiative Referendum goes beyond the simple aspect of citizen participation. By allowing the people to potentially reign on any subject, the Citizens' Initiative Referendum de facto treats popular sovereignty as unlimited. No charter of rights can resist the tyranny of a majority that expresses itself without a filter. Are we sure that "the people" should vote on same-sex marriage (as in Ireland or Romania), mosque minarets (as in Switzerland), migrant quotas (as in Hungary) or the death penalty (as in California and soon, perhaps, in Brazil)? Should the Constitution stand in their way, can't the people legitimately just ask to change it? Is it any surprise that the popular referendum has become a priority for the extremes of both ideological camps, left and right, or that the very populist Mexican president promises to govern with referendums?

Vote vote vote — Photo: Arnaud Jaegers

Binary choices, isolated from systemic effects, are unsuited to the complexity of our open world. The British are finding out that no one actually knows how to define Brexit, so much so that a new referendum is now being discussed to interpret the results of the previous one. We must contrast direct democracy with the liberal conception of a limited sovereignty, one that sets strict limits to what is within the competence of collective decision. This was the response of Benjamin Constant, a defender of the parliamentary system, to the ideas of Rousseau.

Nevertheless, representative democracy has become obsolete, forcing us to imagine forms of political expression that are both more direct than legislative elections and less simplistic than referendums. Nothing impossible, in theory. I see at least two of them:

The first is local direct democracy. Let's not forget that, in Switzerland, the cantons practiced citizen votes for many centuries, before this way of functioning was replicated at the national level, in the second half of the 19th century. I myself had the honor to attend the Landsgemeinde ("People's Assembly") of the canton of Glarus, where citizens gather once a year in the main square and spend an entire day proposing, amending and voting on laws. It's by discussing boring and practical subjects, on which everyone can develop an informed opinion, that we learn the art of compromise and the need for tolerance.

Binary choices are unsuited to the complexity of our open world.

At a national level, it's possible to think of a kind of delegative democracy, such as the one theorized by Bryan Ford some 15 years ago, which is the subject of numerous experiments throughout the world. It consists in transferring your vote to voluntary delegates (and not to elected representatives), with the possibility of taking your vote back at any time. Blockchain technology is emerging that would make it possible to organize a string of delegations, giving everyone the opportunity to participate, according to their motivation, and to encourage delegates to develop their own skills. It's still a distant dream, but what institutional reform didn't start with a dream?

In any case, the urgency today is to decentralize power. Before we ask for a referendum on the euro currency, let's first decide together what are the town parking fines. Democratic maturity comes at this price.


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