Turning protest to participation: civic tech in France

By on 20/03/2019 | Updated on 21/03/2019
Can anger become engagement? President Macron is trying to find out (Image courtesy: Kris Aus67/Flickr).

France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ movement prompted the government to launch a massive, tech-enabled consultation – and it’s attracted more people than the ongoing street protests. This week a Paris conference explored the power of civic technology; Natalie Leal reports

The ‘gilets jaunes’ protests sweeping across France may be destabilising the country’s government and economy, but the response of French president Emmanuel Macron – a ‘Grand National Debate’ designed to gather public views on four key topics – has attracted huge numbers of participants, raising hopes that anger on the streets may be converted into public engagement in the democratic process.

The debate ran from mid-January until March 15, seeking people’s views on democracy and citizenship; taxes and public spending; green energy; and public services. And at the mySociety conference, held on Tuesday in the OECD’s Paris HQ, French MP Paula Forteza said the response was overwhelming – with nearly two million people participating. “Before, if we had 10 or 20,000 contributions we would have been happy,” Forteza said, “so it’s really another scale completely.”

Forteza was speaking in the TICTec 2019 element of the conference, designed to examine the impact that civic technology and digital democracy are having upon citizens, decision makers and governments globally. And the national debate, she argued, provides a great example of how civic tech can help address social, political and economic tensions.

Hearing their voices

Macron launched the debate after the protests began in November 2018, sparked by environmental taxes that drove up the price of diesel. The gilets jaunes – or ‘yellow vests’ – movement spread quickly, and now comprises a disparate group of mainly working class citizens who object to the high cost of living and feel left behind by Macron’s government. The authorities have struggled to get a grip on the situation, with violent clashes happening just last weekend.

Forteza outlined the feedback mechanisms that were put in place, both digital and offline. These included online questionnaires and virtual meetings for overseas citizens, tents in public spaces, a complaints book at local mayor’s offices, and conferences with randomly chosen citizens across the country.

Data was also drawn from other sources, such as TV debates and interviews, and various social media channels. The opinions of younger citizens were sourced on Twitch, a social media platform for digital video streaming, as well as a bot on messenger asking questions from the national debate.

Deputy Mayor of Paris Pauline Véron (left), and Paula Forteza MP of the president’s En Marche! Party (Image courtesy: mySociety).

Data analysis

A hackathon, to be held this weekend at the National Assembly, will see much of the results analysed, she said, and the volume of data collected means that officials can draw “very scientific conclusions.” Among other number crunching activities, participants will conduct text and semantic analysis to try to gain a better understanding of who took part.

The protests have prompted the French government to accelerate ideas which facilitate opportunities for citizens to have their say, she added, and it’s keen to introduce more. These include participatory budgeting: the government is “looking into it at the national level, because we see it’s very successful at the local level,” she said.

Another of the speakers, deputy mayor of Paris Pauline Veron, explained how the city administration has introduced the Parisian Participatory Budget – offering every citizen of the city, regardless of age or nationality, an annual vote on which projects should be funded from a dedicated pot of 100m Euros (US$114m). For participation, she said, “the only condition is to have an address is Paris.”

Frontline spending

The project has attempted to reach both young and old, rich and poor, with 30% of the budget allocated to working class neighbourhoods. The percentage of Parisians taking part, both online and via traditional ballot boxes, is “constantly increasing since it’s been launched,” Veron told the audience. Last year saw a 25% increase compared with 2017, with voting numbers rising in working class areas as well as richer neighbourhoods. Massive art installations, cycle paths and packages for the homeless are just a few of the ideas which have been submitted, voted on and approved.

Given how well the public have responded to both initiatives, the government is now keen to find other, more sustainable ways of engaging all members of society. Forteza told the audience there is now more interest in civic tech than ever before, providing a unique opportunity for it to flourish and innovate.

“We are trying to put in place sustainable participatory mechanisms,” she said, “and the French are mature enough to hear what the civic tech community has to say, and to learn.”

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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