Yellow Vests Crisis: Citizens’ Initiative Referendum Is an Individual Right

INTERVIEW 1/2. Researchers Raul Magni-Berton and Clara Egger, authors of a book on this demand of the Yellow Vests, detail the principles.

Since the emergence of the Yellow Vests, the citizens’ initiative referendum (RIC) has been hotly debated. In their book “RIC: the citizens’ initiative referendum explained to all” (FYP editions), Raul Magni-Berton, professor of political science at Sciences Po Grenoble, and Clara Egger, assistant professor in international relations at the University of Groningen (Pays -Bas), propose a strong defence of the citizens’ initiative referendum (RIC) and call for its introduction in France. Before approaching its application to France in the second part of the interview, they explain the principles.

In your book you defend the RIC. Why? Is it by principle or is it because representative democracy has failed?

Clara Egger: “In Europe there is emerging growing support for direct democracy. The popularity of RIC among the Yellow Vests is mainly due to the fact that it is the lowest common denominator for extremely heterogeneous demands. On our side, we defend RIC in principle. It is a battle for the political rights of the citizen – we are not talking about the ‘people’ – because RIC is an individual right, which allows the citizen to exercise a right of initiative and veto on normative texts.”

Is RIC the prerogative of a particular ideology?

Raul Magni-Berton: “No! In the 19th and 20th centuries RIC was defended and attacked by all ideological currents. The Socialists defended it in the 19th – it was necessary to give more power to the proletarians – but ceased to do so in the 20th – it was necessary to start by educating them, so that they do not vote like the bourgeois. The Liberals have gone the other way. They were very hostile to the 19th century – they feared the tyranny of the majority – before changing their minds – they saw it as a means of promoting the division of powers. RIC is indeed a competitive path to the conventional parliamentary path. Nationalists, on the other hand, have always been against RIC, saying it was synonymous with chaos, before seeing it as a tool of sovereignty in the 1990s. Different justifications are possible, from different political edges.”

In order to repair representative democracy, could a first step be to introduce a proportional system?

Raul Magni-Berton: “The majority system poses the problem of provoking a very big divergence between votes received and seats obtained. Emmanuel Macron obtained, for example, 53% of the deputies for 13% of the votes of the registrants in the first round. This divergence has increased because people are voting more for alternative parties. Proportional solves this problem, but not the formation of oligarchies. In any case, one should not put proportional and RIC on the same level. RIC is an individual right. In this sense, the struggle for RIC is more like that for universal suffrage than it is for a debate on proportional representation or sortition, which are only techniques for improving representation.”

You not only defend the legislative RIC, but the constitutional RIC – which allows us to change the Constitution. Why?

Clara Egger: “Today, supporters of RIC call for the introduction of a ‘legislative, abrogatory, revocatory, and constitutional’ RIC. However, obtaining the latter alone allows to benefit from any other form of RIC – which is not possible in the other direction. In Switzerland, until the mid-2000s, there was a legislative RIC and a constitutional RIC, but the legislative RIC gave rise to incessant battles between representatives and citizens. Since the removal of the legislative RIC, the decision-making process is more serene.”

For you, what should prevail – representative democracy or direct democracy?

Raul Magni-Berton: “We advocate a balance between the two. But the last word must go back to the most difficult procedure to implement, direct democracy, which requires many signatures and strong coordination. It is the same balance that exists in purely parliamentary regimes: Parliament must have the last word, not the government, because it is quicker to make decisions. If the government had the last word, it would take over Parliament and the balance would be broken. Following the same logic, if Parliament had the last word on RIC, the balance between the two would disappear, and RIC would be little used, and only on secondary issues.”

Is there not a risk of RIC being captured by highly informed and motivated minorities? From the tyranny of the minority?

Raul Magni-Berton: “It is possible: very often, the ‘entrepreneurs’ of most RICs are opposition parties. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it creates a balance with the government. RIC is also an instrument of opposition accountability. When the opposition has no power, it can criticise everything – this is the path to the most complete populism. When there is an instrument like RIC, we have to criticise the authorities on specific, winnable points – otherwise we lose the next election. However, RIC is not just an initiative, it is a vote in response to it. In Switzerland, since the introduction of RIC in the 19th century, only 8% of the proposed RICs have been validated. It is not easy to pass a RIC. Note also that one must be organised in order to launch one, which pushes the concerned citizens to create associations: RIC contributes to increase what one calls ‘social capital’.”

Clara Egger: “It is empirically known that RIC produces public policies that conform to the wishes of the majority. When a measure seems risky or problematic, it’s the no that wins – voters prefer the status quo.”

How to ensure, in the context of a constitutional RIC, the protection of fundamental rights?

Raul Magni-Berton: “The stakes are the same in a representative democracy: how to make sure that the representatives will not change the Constitution so as to encroach on fundamental rights? History tells us that it is more dangerous to let representatives change the Constitution than the citizens who enjoy these rights. Countries with a constitutional RIC are more respectful of fundamental rights than those who do not. I am thinking of Switzerland or Uruguay. Then one can, if one wishes, add specifications in the Constitution that make it more difficult to change it. This is the case in Switzerland, where one can not leave international treaties that have been validated by RIC. But even such an article can also be modified by RIC!”

Treaties and international commitments seem to be a blind spot for RIC: how to reconcile RIC and diplomatic credibility?

Clara Egger: “Theoretically, in most democratic regimes it is the Parliament that validates treaties. It is therefore always possible for the Parliament to denounce an international commitment. Then, empirically, we find that RIC produces more cooperative policies. Switzerland is a neutral country, but it has a range of diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian tools that France does not have. More involved in the international scene and in mediation activities, it is a more reliable and coveted partner. We propose in our book a mandatory referendum that would require to decide on any international commitment introduced by treaties. We believe that the engagement of the armed forces should be done with much more popular control.”

What is the cost of the RIC?

Clara Egger: “Even when RICs are grouped together, they still increase the number of electoral deadlines, thus expenses too. Other ways to reduce the cost of elections, such as electronic voting, can be considered. On the other hand, while the cost of RIC is not insignificant, it also tends to reduce the size of the state and bureaucracy. Public services are more controlled and therefore more efficient.”

Why not be modest and start with local RICs, for learning purposes?

Raul Magni-Berton: “A local RIC – especially in a centralised country like France – is counterproductive. Very few taxes are collected at the local level: a RIC would then produce a gap between the level at which tax resources are collected and the level at which the legislation is decided. This does not make it possible to make fiscal policies more responsible or to pacify conflicts. The local RIC would make sense if France was a federal country.”

Is there not a risk of the inflation of RIC, and therefore of political instability? RICs could undo what others have done permanently.

Clara Egger: “Majority reversals can of course take place. But it is difficult to get the majority’s consent on fundamental changes, so RIC tends to slow down legislative production. There are fewer laws, but more are accepted and they are more durable. Moreover, in Switzerland, RIC does not produce any economic instability – contrary to a common fear.”

RIC could make politics omnipresent. Is this not the negation of one of the virtues of liberal democracy – that of offering the right not to want to do politics directly?

Raul Magni-Berton: “The right not to want to do politics directly is sacred. But it’s a right, not a duty. The use of RIC does not force anyone to start petitions or vote in referendums. In theory, everyone can let the representatives work quietly. But what is important is that everyone can start a petition and vote in a referendum. The right not to want to do politics directly is also the right to do it when you feel like it. RIC guarantees these two rights, whereas without RICs, individuals cannot intervene directly in political decisions, even if they want to do so.”

You see at the end of the book that the ICN does not bring the “people” closer to the political “elite”. Is not this deeply regrettable?

Clara Egger: “The philosophy that founded liberal democracy is inseparable from a certain mistrust. Unlike enlightened despotism, liberal systems are based on a separation of powers that prevents concentration and abuse of power. The idea is that it is possible to build a society that works even with selfish individuals, if institutions allow them to control each other. RIC only increases this control, which, as we show in the book, increases confidence in the political system, but, indeed, not that which exists between the different powers which limit each other – here, direct legislation versus indirect legislation.”

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart and Gabriel Bouchaud, Le Point

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