Yale’s Landemore helps guide France’s unique citizens’ convention

Yale political scientist Hélène Landemore will help oversee a council of citizens that will reconsider France’s laws on assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Citizen’s Convention on Climate in 2020

In 2019 and 2020, a council of 150 citizens deliberated over France’s policies relating to climate justice and produced a series of legislative proposals concerning the issue. (Photo: Sipa USA via AP)

French President Emmanuel Macron has appointed Yale political scientist Hélène Landemore to the governance committee overseeing a citizens’ convention that will reconsider France’s laws on assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The new assembly, which will include 170 randomly selected citizens from across French society, will be the second citizens’ convention convened by Macron’s administration. In 2019 and 2020, a council of 150 citizens deliberated over the country’s policies relating to climate justice and produced a series of legislative proposals concerning the issue.

For Landemore, a political theorist who studies alternatives to electoral democracy that empower ordinary people to define laws and set legislative agendas, serving on the governance committee is an exciting opportunity to put her research into practice.

I’m very proud that I get to play a role in shaping the convention,” said Landemore, professor of political science in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “In the best-case scenario, it will provide a path to institutionalizing citizens’ conventions in France.”

Hélène Landemore
Hélène Landemore

In a departure from the previous convention, which was established by presidential fiat, this new assembly, which holds its first session in Paris on Dec. 9, is convened by the CESE, a consultative legislative assembly meant to involve civil society in the French government’s economic, social, and environmental policies, which a recent organic law recently reformed into a chamber of citizen participation.

Whereas the initial convention’s policy proposals were self-standing, this time the citizens’ recommendations must be paired with an opinion by the CESE. This raises concerns that the citizens’ voices will be diluted, Landemore said.

The governance committee has made it very clear that this has to be at least as ambitious as the first convention in the role given to the citizens,” said Landemore, who observed the last convention as a researcher. “Subsuming the citizens’ recommendations in the CESE’s recommendations should be absolutely out of the question.”

The convention’s topic — end of life issues — is narrower than climate justice but complicated and morally fraught. While campaigning for a second term as president, Macron had suggested the possibility of easing restrictions on assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The governance committee — responsible for setting the convention’s procedures — is composed of six members of the CESE and eight individuals with expertise relevant to the convention, including academics and medical ethicists.

The committee expanded the number of citizens selected for the convention from 150 to 170 so that the deliberative body can be as nationally representative as possible, Landemore explained. The citizens will represent a mix of genders, age, geographical areas, professions, and education levels. They will meet regularly through mid-March and consider a variety of perspectives as they deliberate.

It’s very tricky because we want to be impartial, but there is a wide range of views on this topic, and we want to represent all of them while presenting the citizens a balanced point of view,” Landemore said.

The governance committee must be mindful that the citizens will be weighing difficult, emotionally charged issues of life and death and will require support for their own mental health, Landemore said.

One of the questions we’ll have to deal with is what do we put in place to care for members who have crisis moments or moments of fragility,” she said. “We also need to build in moments of conviviality, such as dining, and opportunities to enjoy life outside the deliberations.”

While observing the previous convention, Landemore said she believed the organizers focused too heavily on building consensus among the participants. She would prefer a more free-ranging discussion.

We hope there will be a consensus at the end of the process but let’s not create it artificially,” she said. “It is very important to air disagreements and debate them respectfully. The members must make up their minds with the full knowledge of a range of views.”

Ideally, French voters would accept or reject the citizens’ proposals in a national referendum, Landemore said. However, it appears that the French constitution likely prohibits moral issues, such as assisted suicide, to be decided by referendum.

Short of holding a referendum, she said, a successful convention would result in policy recommendations that are approved by the French Parliament.

Several Western democracies have experimented with using citizens’ assemblies to guide policymaking. In Ireland, citizens’ assemblies set the stage for nationwide referenda that legalized same-sex marriage and abortion. Belgium has held mixed commissions — two-thirds of which were citizens and one-third members of parliament — to consider various policy matters. In 2023, the country will convene a permanent Citizens’ Assembly of 100 members dedicated to recommending policies to address climate change.

In the private sector, the social media company Meta is experimenting with community forums of randomly selected users to assist it in making decisions that govern its technologies.

Landemore has argued that using randomly selected deliberative bodies composed of a representative sample of a nation’s population to set the legislative agenda and offer guidance on issues of national importance leads to more inclusive and better-functioning democracies. To that end, the stakes are high for France’s upcoming convention, she said.

The spectacle of electoral politics is so dispiriting at the moment,” she said. “I see a movement toward institutionalizing citizens’ assemblies in Ireland, Belgium, and France. I think you need the more privileged countries to lead the way on this and prove it works. That’s why this a big responsibility. If we fail, then we’re burying this idea for a while in France and maybe beyond. I hope we succeed.”

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,