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Unlikely allies: how the ever-divided French Left and Right triggered a minority referendum to halt Macron’s privatization plans

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Orly airport Photo courtesy of Naotake Murayama (CC BY 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Unlikely allies: how the ever-divided French Left and Right triggered a minority referendum to halt Macron’s privatization plans

05-03-2020

In April last year, civil demands to stop the privatization of one of France’s public ‘’crown jewels’’, the Groupe ADP, ex-Aéroports de Paris were recognized in the political arena by a broad array of political parties. By triggering a minority referendum procedure, the called ‘Référendum d’initiative partagée’ (RIP), one of the Philippe government’s latest policy proposals could be halted (1). Even though the project of privatisation of ADP received a considerable amount of media and political attention in France, the RIP procedure remains largely unknown to both French citizens and politicians: as a matter of fact, it is the very first time this instrument of direct democracy is being called on by parliamentarians. So how does it work?

By Shanne Bouma

Where is the RIP coming from? 

The current attempt to trigger a referendum is the first time ever the RIP procedure is used in France. However, the idea behind the RIP is much older. Already in 1992, French president François Mitterrand requested law expert Georges Vedel to revise the constitution. Vedel proposed a minority referendum. Before that, there existed only two ways to trigger a referendum, by a majority decision of parliament, or by presidential decision. Vedel’s idea slightly resembled the RIP we see today, but it was not the same instrument. The actual RIP is a mix between Vedel´s report and another one. Only in 2008 the RIP procedure as we know it today took off. Édouard Balladur, appointed by Nicolas Sarkozy - the president at that time - made a new report on the minority referendum. The president did not follow the recommendations in the report, but some legislators proposed a parliamentary amendment to the constitution. They won and as such surpassed Sarkozy´s decision. The 2008 Constitutional Reform modified Article 11 of the French Constitution to include the new RIP mechanism, before organic laws were passed in 2013 and a decree in late 2014 finalised its enshrinement. The 1 January 2015, the RIP officially entered into force.

Right now, the RIP is used for the first time ever with the ongoing situation in the Groupe ADP. Difficulties in its implementation quickly arise. Some say this is due to very tight procedural conditions. A proposal needs the support of 1/5th of the legislature (185 legislators), before the Constitution Court examines within 1 month that the proposal meets all requirements. Additionally, the French electorate must support a proposal and 4,7 million signatures need to be collected, equalling 1/10th of the electorate. When an initiative manages to gather this amount of public support, the French parliament has six months to consider the objections. If they fail to do so within this established period, a nationwide referendum has to be called for by the President of the Republic.

Zooming in on this RIP 

The collection of signatures by parliamentarians was successful, to the surprise of many. Several left- and right-wing parties cooperated in a bid to halt the government’s latest policy proposal.  According to Manon Rescan, parliamentary journalist for French daily Le Monde, this cooperation can be explained by two trends in the current French political landscape. She stated that traditionally, the right wing has been in favour of privatization, but that the trend is reversing. Some right-wing parties are now also in favour of protecting state infrastructure. Secondly, Macron’s government holds a big majority in parliament. The only way to stop him is by working together. In the end, cooperating parties, from the Left to the Right were able to gather 248 signatures, 60 more than needed. 

In the second phase of the RIP, the French electorate needs to get behind the idea. According to the conditions of the RIP, the initiators of the referendum have until March 13, 2020 to collect the 4,7 million signatures. This is a very high percentage for an initiative. 

The current reality is a bit bleak. The initiative only passed the threshold of one million signatures in December. Moreover, the public seems to be forgetting about it and the politicians that triggered the procedure seem to have lost focus on it. Media attention is decreasing as there are barely new reports on the issue anymore. There have been some significant political developments France and the current political situation is very dense. As such, the process is stagnating, but this is not only because of the decline in political and public attention. 

It also has to do with the internal make-up of the initiative and governmental decisions. Firstly, the initiators asked for a state-sponsored advertising campaign, but this was refused by the government. Secondly, citizens can only sign the initiative online. The government set up a platform, but that exact platform has been plagued with technical difficulties and failure. It was developed in 2014 and it is old and little user-friendly 2. Also, many people have difficulties registering. In order to validate the signatures, the platform uses the names of citizens on the electoral rolls.  You need all the official information on your electoral card and for many people as they move and change addresses, this is not the same information as on their ID card or passports. Minor mistakes in the registration can already prevent you from signing. 

According to Manon Rescan a second reason the process has stagnated is a lack of privacy. Names are public, you can look up who has signed the initiative. It is possible that many people have difficulty with this visibility of their political preference. She also hypothesizes about a final reason for stagnation in the process. As the referendum is all about the privatization of the Parisian airports, it is a subject that does not touch the entirety of France. Airports are not vital public services concerning everyone. Many French people may have never used the airport in their lives.  

The RIP will not make it

It is sure that this RIP procedure will fail, because it is impossible that the proposal will gain an additional 3 million signatures before March. What the French government will do with that result is unclear. There are still chances the privatization of Groupe ADP will be halted. Currently, the government has other priorities going on– France is experiencing its longest strike ever following proposals to reform the French pension system.  As such, it could be a political strategy to reconsider the plan to carry out what would be the third biggest privatization ever realised. This could potentially be a smart move in a country that historically has shown strong aversion to privatization. 

 

1)  More information on the national Authorities' minority plebiscite instrument in France on the Direct Democracy Navigator

2)    https://www.referendum.interieur.gouv.fr/soutien/etape-1        

Photo courtesy of Naotake Murayama (CC BY 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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