Yellow Vest Protests In France Show No End In Sight: Could Sortition Be Part Of A Solution?

The yellow vest protests in France have entered their 8th week with a resurging number of protesters. The protests November 17 with an estimated 290,000 demonstrators, according to France 24. Numbers decreased during the holiday period, but were back up to about 50,000 last Saturday, according to Reuters. Violence between police and protesters continues, as well as widespread property destruction. The violence comes mainly from fringe elements on the far ends of the left-right political spectrum. Six deaths have been connected to the protests.

On Saturday, protesters used a forklift to break into a government ministry, forcing Benjamin Griveaux, a prominent government spokesman, to flee the building. Griveaux stated later that “It wasn’t me who was attacked – it was the Republic”. French president Emmanuel Macron tweeted that “Once again, the Republic was attacked with extreme violence – its guardians, its representatives, its symbols.”

The protests were originally in objection to a fuel tax hike but have since evolved into a general protest against high living costs, and against Macron’s government, which is seen as out of touch and in favour of the rich. Macron claims that the petrol tax is part of a green tax plan to reduce fossil fuel usage. However, fuel taxes inevitably impact lower and middle-class people the most. They make commuting more expensive and margins much tighter for small businesses. That Macron also chose to greatly reduce a significant tax on the wealthy brought further cynicism.

The frustration of the lower and middle classes is part of the reason the yellow vest movement is so decentralized and non-ideological; it has no overarching leadership and the movement’s demands are inconsistent. This makes it very difficult for Macron and other political leaders to reach out to the movement and negotiate.

Macron has made significant concessions. He has pledged to increase the minimum wage, have tax breaks for pensioners and remove taxes from overtime pay. He even abandoned the fuel tax, the catalyst of the movement. According to Reuters, the cost of these pledges will likely put France’s budget deficit in breach of the European Union’s 3% of GDP limit. Despite this, Macron is refusing to undo the reduction of the wealth tax. This was likely an error on his part, as the protests have continued and have the support of 55% of the French public, according to a poll published last week by Odoxa Dentsu.

A lack of tact on behalf of French officials has contributed to the difficulty of addressing this crisis. Macron’s style is often described as condescending and aloof. This reinforces the image that elites are out of touch. As the protests appeared to be losing momentum during the Christmas holidays, the government’s rhetoric against the protesters hardened. Griveaux described the remaining protesters as “agitators who want insurrection”. Last week, Eric Drouet, a community leader, was arrested for organizing an unauthorized protest; he was later released, pending trial. All these actions have added to the deep resentment held by the yellow vest protesters.

Macron and his party won a sweeping election in 2017. This was largely because he represented an alternative to the major parties, which, the French public felt, were full of career politicians who could not bring meaningful change. But Macron has only continued the trend of austerity politics that have seen the slow erosion of France’s wealth redistribution mechanisms since the 1980s. Because of this, many French people see Macron’s policies as a failure at best – or a betrayal at worst.

The concessions Macron made to the protesters might help those who are struggling. But they do not address the current political zeitgeist, characterized by the resentment of elites. Political elites are increasingly seen as betrayers of their duty to represent the people. Examples of this phenomenon can be seen all over the world: Britain voted for Brexit, America elected Trump, the AFD is the main opposition in Germany and Brazil elected Bolsonaro, to name some well-known examples.

The government’s proposal to have a ‘National Debate’ on the direction of France is a step in the right direction: it might reduce the anger of the protesters by giving them a voice. But the problem with this process is that the government can ignore or cherry-pick the outcomes of the debates. The government has already said it will not go back on any reforms it has already made, including tax reductions for the wealthy.

What the protesters want is a fundamental change in the way politics is conducted. That is why all attempts at appeasement have failed so far. To address the anger of the French public, and to keep it moderated long-term, ideas like the ‘National Debate’ need to be taken further. Ordinary people’s voices must be institutionalized and given power and authority in the lawmaking process. This can be achieved by reforming French democracy to include ‘sortition’.

Sortition, like representative democracy and direct democracy, is simply another type of democracy. It is a system in which people are randomly selected from a group as their representatives and given the responsibility of making political decisions for that group. This system ensures that everyone in a democracy has an equal chance of being one of the people who run it.

Modern representative democracy has the problem that usually only those coming from privilege, or who can get the support of wealthy campaign donors, have a chance of being elected. This has contributed to the creation of a political class that does not understand the life of an ordinary person. Ordinary people, who grow tired of feeling unrepresented, become disengaged with political life and processes. They let their resentment grow – until it results in drastic votes and violent protests, which political elites continually fail to predict, prevent or explain until too late.

If any individual, and everyone in their social circle, have a chance of significantly influencing government policy, then they will engage with politics more. If one sees that someone who looks, talks and has lived like them is part of political decision making, they will feel more fairly represented.

There are many ways sortition can be incorporated into a democracy. One way would be a new legislative chamber. Then, randomly select representatives among adults around the country to serve for a set term. Any time the government seeks to change or create a new law, it would need to first be scrutinized in this new chamber. After a proper amount of debate and expert consultation, the members would vote on the change or law.

Such a system would provide an important check to any government that loses sight of its campaign mandates, or its purpose of serving the people. It would increase the legitimacy of French democracy by helping ordinary people feel that their voices matter. Such measures would greatly diminish the anger of the yellow vest protesters, and similarly, further disruptive protest movements may be avoided. Policymakers going forward would have to be mindful to create policy that sortitioned representatives would accept. That would lead to policy making that is more in the interests of the whole public, not just wealthy, connected elites.

Edmund Pollock