No referendum on climate protection in France

07. July 2021

In France, the attempt to anchor climate protection in the constitution failed on 6 July 2021. The Senate and the National Assembly could not agree on a common wording for the constitutional amendment. This means that a proposal drafted in 2020 by the national climate assembly will not be implemented. "This is deeply regrettable," said Prime Minister Jean Castex. He assured that the fight for climate protection would continue.

In the French Senate, the bourgeois right has the majority. The agreement of the two chambers of parliament on a text was considered the first step to change Article 1 of the constitution. Initially, the following sentence was planned: "It (the Republic) guarantees the preservation of the environment and biodiversity and fights against climate change."

Initiative by president Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron wanted the citizens of his country to decide in a referendum whether climate protection should be anchored in the constitution as a national goal. He announced this on 14 December 2020 at a meeting with members of the climate assembly "Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat".

In June 2020, the randomly selected participants of the Citizens' Assembly had spoken out in favour of a corresponding amendment to the constitution and for all citizens to decide on it in a referendum. Macron had convened the citizens' assembly after massive protests by the so-called "yellow waistcoats" against a CO2 tax in order to get advice from the randomly selected citizens on climate protection measures. Over the course of seven weekends, the assembly participants developed 149 recommendations for achieving a 40 per cent reduction in the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, including the recommendation to add the sentence "The Republic guarantees the preservation of biodiversity and the environment and fights against climate change" to the constitution.

Without filters

President Macron had promised to either forward the recommendations "without filter" to parliament or to submit them to the citizens in a referendum. In the meantime, members of the citizens' assembly and environmental associations have criticised the president for rejecting three proposals outright and for cutting back on numerous other measures. For example, Macron already said "no" to a reduction of the speed limit from 130 to 110 kilometres per hour in June 2020.

"I expected much more than a referendum" commented William Aucant, Citizens' Assembly participant from Nantes, on meeting Macron. "Since June, I have had the impression that we 150 are holding the huge dam that our citizens' report represents and that each of us citizens is plugging the various gaps with our own hands, wave after wave. Hence my fatigue. We will hold out for a long time, but how much longer?" the architect from Nantes wondered.

Regret over lack of referendums

Aucant was happy about the debate on the announced referendum. "However, I do not hide my fear that this will lead us away from the issue," one of the best-known heads of the climate assembly said. This had already been observed at the time of the announcement of the referendum. He regrets that the citizens' assembly had turned down the opportunity to propose several issues as topics for referendums in June 2020. "Then we would have talked about content, avoided the trap of a referendum and the climate assembly would have expanded beyond its walls," Aucant says. Fearing referendum defeats, the citizens' assembly had rejected referendums on key climate policy recommendations.

MP Matthieu Orphelin had prepared a bingo card for the citizens' assembly members' meeting with President Macron. At the end of the evening, there were many hits for citizens' assembly recommendations rejected by Macron. Measures such as the obligation of landlords to renovate their flats for heating purposes were not implemented according to the proposals of the citizens' assembly.

"Disappointed and happy"

Citizens' Assembly participant Grégoire Fraty expressed disappointment at the failure of the constitutional referendum, "because the Citizens' Assembly has been working on this amendment for two years. Despite the diversity of assembly members, we managed to agree on the importance of enshrining climate action in the constitution. We were told it would be complicated and doomed to fail in advance. We wanted to believe that politics would be able to transcend ideological differences, to go beyond the left-right or liberal-conservative divide, for the good of the climate. It is a big failure: politics is not able to grasp the climate issue and make a difference".

Apart from all the criticism, the French government wants to take the following measures, among others, as a result of the climate assembly:

  • Ban on advertising for the most climate-damaging products
  • mandatory introduction of environmental zones in conurbations with more than 150,000 inhabitants by 31 December 2024
  • Ban on the sale of vehicles emitting more than 95 grammes of CO2/km from 1 January 2030 onwards.
  • Ban on short-haul flights where the destination can be reached by rail in less than 2.5 hours, unless it is a connecting flight. In addition, all domestic flights must be 100% offset by 2024. The government reserves the right to increase the solidarity tax on airline tickets once traffic returns to 2019 levels. Finally, projects for new airports or expansions cannot be declared in the public interest if they lead to an increase in emissions compared to 2019.
  • When re-letting a very energy-intensive dwelling, the rent in the new lease cannot be higher than the last rent applied. In addition, the renting of poorly insulated flats will be banned from 2028.
  • France commits to reducing land sealing by setting a target of not exceeding half of the real land consumption observed in the last ten years and a target of zero net sealing in ten years.
  • Establish an emissions reduction pathway for nitrogen fertiliser use in agriculture. If the targets are not met by 2024, a levy may be introduced that comes into force the following year. The goal is to achieve a 13 % reduction by 2030 compared to 2005.
  • An offence of ecocide is created. The offence of water pollution will be extended to include soil and air pollution. This concerns substances which, even if only temporarily, have harmful effects on health or cause damage to flora or fauna. Dumping large amounts of waste into nature will also be punishable. In addition, offenders may be required to make reparations. The maximum penalties are ten years in prison and a fine of 4.5 million euros.

Meanwhile, critics had warned from the beginning, that the constitutional referendum advocated by President Macron will never happen. The constitutional reform, a draft law with one article, was presented to the Council of Ministers at the end of January 2021. In spring, the National Assembly discussed it. According to this, the Senate should have agreed to the bill without amendments. The same Senate that had rejected a similar initiative in 2018. If the constitutional amendment nevertheless would have passed at parliamentary level, a suitable voting date would have to be sought. Not easy in times of the Corona pandemic. In addition, there is the presidential election campaign in spring 2022, in which the referendum could have been misused for a vote for or against Macron.

On 10 February 2021, the government presented a bill to implement the recommendations of the citizens' assembly. In it, 25 proposals of the Convention Citoyenne did not appear, 19 were adopted, 75 were partially adopted. On 20 July 2021, the French National Assembly passed a comprehensive legislative package on climate protection. Among other things, it provides for the new offence of "ecocide", a ban on certain short-haul flights and premiums for the purchase of electric bicycles.

Critics: Climate protection target will not be achieved

Ecocide refers to serious environmental damage on a national scale, such as the pollution of a river. Violators face up to ten years in prison and fines of up to 4.5 million euros. In addition, the government bans short-haul flights within France if an alternative train connection of no more than two and a half hours exists. Connecting flights are exempt. The members of the Citizens' Council had demanded this for routes of four hours by train.

Critics complain that nothing will come of the "crime of ecocide". Particularly bad pollution would only be classified as a simple offence. The MPs have indeed decided that large business centres that take up a lot of land may no longer be built. However, this does not apply if they are smaller than 10,000 square metres. According to environmental associations, however, it is precisely these shops that account for 80 per cent of new buildings. The 150 members of the citizens' assembly had demanded a moratorium on new commercial areas on the outskirts of the city that endanger farmland.

The proposed legislation would at best achieve a CO2 reduction of about 20 percent by 2030, instead of the targeted 40 percent. Not even ten percent of the proposals of the citizens' assembly would be implemented.

Constructive and reasonable proposals

Grégoire Fraty is satisfied with the sortition democracy procedure itself "This big democratic gamble works. It has been shown that if you put 150 French citizens in a room, get them to discuss and work on the climate issue, the result is not that they beat each other up, but that they make constructive and reasonable proposals. The citizen is ready to take the political process in hand," Fraty sums up.

Because President Macron probably sees it similarly, he already has big plans for the future of sortition democracy. "I would like to develop further citizens' assemblies for our country and propose a European citizens' assembly as part of France's EU presidency," the head of state announced at the meeting with the members of the climate assembly.

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