A national citizens' assembly on assisted dying has been running in France since 9 December 2022. Hugh Pope, as a mini public expert, is observing the assembly and reports on it here.
How often do any of us study a single topic for 27 working days, spread over four months of reflection? With the full support of a government and briefings by experts, officials, civil society and academics? Helped by regular deliberation with fellow citizens from all parts of our community? And in our conclusions, responsible to nobody but our individual conscience?
Find answers to fraught questions
On 9 December, France embarked on exactly that to find answers to fraught questions around its ban on assisted suicide. As the centre of a national debate on the issue, it convened 185 people, randomly selected from all over the country and its overseas territories, to research, discuss and propose answers to the question: “Is the framework for end-of-life support suited to all situations or should changes be introduced?”
Time will tell where the Convention’s work leads to by the time it wraps up in March. But the first of nine long weekends of intense discussions was already remarkable, at least as seen from my position as one of 25 researchers and students invited to observe the Citizens Assembly on assisted dying.
Citizens' Assembly organized by CESE
Most extraordinary was the depth of French government support for this second iteration of a radical experiment in democracy by lot. (The first was a similarly constituted Climate Assembly in 2019-20). When President Emmanuel Macron summoned the new Citizen Convention into existence in September, the job was again assigned to France’s Economic, Social and Environmental Council, a little-known constitutional body known by its French acronym CESE, which acts as a link to the broader population for the National Assembly and the Senate.
CESE thus coordinated the random selection of participants, found experts, prepared briefing papers and organized the convention’s three main phases: research, deliberation and summing up. The Convention also takes place in CESE’s fine Palais d’Iéna, which looks over the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. Ironically, an early revelation was how the building’s great spaces done in 1930s rational modernism are fine for top-down speeches to 150-250 people, but lack the subdivisions needed for deliberation in small groups that is a key part of today’s participatory democratic process.
"A place in which new forms of democracy are being invented"
“You are here in a place in which new forms of democracy are being invented and developed … and of them the Citizen Convention is without doubt the most ambitious, the most demanding and the most engaging,” participants were told by CESE’s president, Thierry Beaudet. “It’s impossible to do this [deliberation] on the scale of a country, so you’re going to do it for us, for the whole of society … This is the basis of both your legitimacy and our trust in you.”
The randomly selected audience hardly looked revolutionary. Participants had only some of the youth and diversity of, say, the crowds travelling in the nearby Paris metro; they also had very few of the confident smiles and neat, conservative clothes that are the hallmark of elected politicians. At the same time, every element of society and France’s geography seemed present: a cheese farmer from the Alps, a professor of Greek and a retired teacher from Lille were joined by an immigrant from Niger, people of Algerian and Moroccan heritage and women in Muslim headscarves.
True mirror of a country's whole population
It was unique to see a true mirror of a country’s whole population in one place: France came across as predominantly middle-aged, paler-skinned, polite, attentive and – after some initial shyness – articulate, collaborative and ready to challenge authority.
All whom I met were delighted to take part, even if, before they got the phone call inviting them to the Convention, few had given much prior thought to civic action or end-of-life issues. Even fewer had heard of random selection. “I can’t believe how lucky I was to be selected!” said one. “I’m very proud to be here,” said another. “I feel like for once my voice will be heard,” said a third.
Promise to participants
The way people reflected the actual diversity of France was praised repeatedly in speeches to the Convention by French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and President of the National Assembly Yaël Braun-Pivet. The two elected politicians thanked the conventioneers and promised to take their work into account in deciding how to shape a likely future change in French law on accompanying the end of life.
“The level of government support and organisation is so different this time,” said Mélanie Blanchetot, one of the participants in the 2019-20 Climate Convention, who was invited back to brief the new assembly on what had for her been a life-changing awakening to political activism. “When we started, there were members of parliament who said: ‘What legitimacy do you have?’”
Orientation at the first weekend
On their first weekend, the new participants mostly got orientation: on how a citizens’ assembly is chosen by random selection, how to get access to digital information and what the 25 observers sitting near their tables are researching. Belgian and Swiss practitioners took the floor in a sombre session to discuss what administrating assisted suicide feels like in practice. Jean-François Delfraissy, president of France’s National Council of the Ethics of Life Sciences and Health, reminded all that there was no one right answer. “You won’t get the last word, so be humble,” Delfraissy said. “I predict there’ll be another group just like you revisiting the issue within a decade.”
The quality of much of the information was striking, like a 102-page report from France’s National Centre for End of Life-Palliative Care. With scrupulous neutrality, the document gives participants examples of end-of-life dilemmas cases and a list of arguments for and against actively assisted death. It outlines French law and gives examples from 10 other countries where assisted suicide is possible. It shows how France is growing older and therefore more people are dying in absolute terms each year; and how most French people want to die at home, but only 25 per cent manage to, with more than half dying in hospital. It ends with a list of relevant official reports, books, documentaries, theatrical productions and films.
Participants' deliberation is private
Most of these documents and speeches are being made public on CESE’s website to allow the rest of France to inform itself alongside the Convention. The participants’ deliberation, however, is private. This took place in between the briefings at tables of about 10 people, whose make-up was shuffled between sessions through repeated selection by lot. Here the role of facilitators was key, especially in making sure everyone’s voice was heard. Sometimes the discussions stumbled when it wasn’t clear what was being asked of the group. By the third day, however, most people were making sensible, lively and acute contributions.
Absent from the Convention was any sign of the polarization one might expect given the political, religious and ethical sensitivity surrounding end-of-life dilemmas; all the main religions were invited to say their part on the second weekend. “There’s the same mix of views on assisted suicide within the group that feels religious convictions as among those who say they’re atheists,” one participant remarked.
Politics behind calling the convention
One unexpectedly lively area of private discussion among participants was the politics behind President Macron calling the Convention into existence. Some thought it might be an attempt to score a popular goal without losing the support of people with strong views, since the most recent poll in February 2022 shows that 94 per cent of French people agree with assisted dying in cases of extreme suffering and 89 per cent agree with assisted suicide.
Perhaps alluding to politicians’ perceived need to renew their legitimacy before an electorate alienated from politics – about one quarter of French voters abstained from last presidential elections – Prime Minister Borne hoped that the Convention would play a “central role” in a new national debate, bypassing polarizing debates in electoral campaigns.
"We build the wall together"
The issue of what would happen to the Convention’s findings triggered the only moment of tension on the first weekend. In response to critical questions from the Convention floor, the president of the National Assembly sharply defended her conviction that while the conventioneers might have valuable inputs and reflect French society, the elected parliament had the final word.
“You are free, but so are we … even if you reflect greater diversity than parliament, you don’t represent the people! You are a foundation stone and we will all build the wall together,” Braun-Pivet said. “There is no question that random selection will replace elections.”
"Collective intelligence can produce tremendous things"
Even if this put-down grated with some - one participant grumbled about feeling like a commoner at the last Estates-General of Louis XVI’s crumbling regime, convened just before it collapsed in the 1789 French revolution - the atmosphere in the convention remained highly collaborative. As Prime Minister Borne pointed out, “few countries in the world would give such responsibility to randomly selected people and commit to collective deliberation.”
After all, 27 days of work amid four months of reflection is “much longer than the time available to most members of parliament debating and reflecting on the writing of a new law”, the CESE’s Beaudet reminded participants. “The Citizen Convention is a wonderful tool that shows how being perfectly informed and taking time to deliberate, collective intelligence can produce tremendous things.”
Hugh Pope is a former international correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and author of books on Turkey, the Middle East and Central Asia. He is currently preparing for publication in March 2023 his late father Maurice Pope’s book The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power. He sits on the Board of Advisers of DemocracyNext.