Expert viewpoint

“The lack of consensus is an integral part of democracy”: Laurence Monnoyer-Smith’s point of view

Stuttgart 21, Notre Dame des Landes, the western bypass of Strasbourg, etc. Large-scale urban and infrastructure projects seem to be challenged now more than ever, to the extent that urban planning now appears to fall within the scope of geopolitics. These challenges are often perceived as an expression of citizens’ desires to play a more active role in the decisions that shape their environment. The observation may seem contradictory, as there are many mechanisms in place today that aim to secure their participation in project design. Does this mean that the tools used in participatory democracy have failed? Are they simply the victims of ineffective implementation? La Fabrique de la Cité met Laurence Monnoyer-Smith, former Vice-President of the French national commission for public debate, CNDP, researcher in information and communication sciences, an expert in participatory systems and public participation studies, currently technical advisor at the French centre for space studies, CNES.

La Fabrique de la Cité: What is your opinion of the current crisis of consensus? Have you noted a rise in opposition movements or have they simply changed form?

Laurence Monnoyer-Smith: Are we experiencing a crisis of consensus today? The answer is clearly no! As Pierre Rosanvallon wrote, the lack of consensus is an integral part of democracy. In the history of democracy, the only instances of consensus were artificial, obtained by means that are not part of the democratic process as we understand it today. Moreover, environmental policies can be conducted in non-democratic countries; in China, for example, the environmental transition is being implemented at a much faster pace.

Far from a crisis of consensus, there are simply oppositions which appear in times of specific transitions, like those of the 1970s or today, punctuated by difficulties to create an alignment between civil society and representative authorities. What we are experiencing is not abnormal, it is not a pathology of democracy. It simply requires us to consider democracy more fully, by looking at a form of representation that is fairer or at least less aligned with the aspirations of civil society. In the 1970s, we created major energy and transportation infrastructure and developed legislation with the reform of public inquiries and the adoption of a series of participatory mechanisms which were gradually put into place in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to the French Bouchardeau Law. We therefore tried to adapt to these aspirations and to the country’s infrastructure needs. This was difficult to do but we found ways to achieve it.

“What we are experiencing is not abnormal, it is not a pathology of democracy”.

— Laurence Monnoyer-Smith

Today, we are once again in a period of transition, with injunctions that are sometimes more contradictory and more violent than in the 1970s. The question is no longer simply how to implement infrastructure which is more in line with changes to our lifestyles. We are now facing an existential question. It is not the same to say “we must enter the modern era by travelling faster and by making productivity gains” and to say “our existence will be under threat in 2050 or 2100”. Today, the question is raised as to whether in 2100 50% or 70% of the global population will be subjected to temperatures that directly threaten their survival for 50 to 125 days per year. We are also heading towards a massive extinction of biodiversity, which will have dramatic consequences on our lives.

This highly complex transition phase imposes a change in paradigm with regard to our behaviour, our economic models and our organisation. To this, we must add the aspirations expressed today, particularly in France, for a more equal distribution of efforts. The environmental crisis specifically threatens the most vulnerable, who are asked to make more efforts than those who suffer less. This statement is intolerable for part of the population.

These are colossal challenges, if you look at the extent to which our economic structure, tax system and social security system are inadequate. It is therefore not surprising that consensus issues are occurring.

La Fabrique de la Cité: Do you accept claims that consultation and dialogue tools have failed? What is the root of the difficulties we are experiencing today in leveraging legislation and regulations implemented to promote citizen participation?

Laurence Monnoyer-Smith: With the participation tools implemented in the 1980s, the number of consultation bodies increased across the country. They more or less reached their objectives and brought about support for French infrastructure projects. There was a very strong acculturation. Many project owners took part in these participatory mechanisms, admittedly reluctantly, and implemented structures which operate well, in particular the SNCF rail company and RTE, the French transmission system operator. Are these mechanisms relevant today? Should we consider that they are insufficient, that we must go further, because the challenges are different now? Once the authoritarian option, which is observed in many countries, has been dismissed, the only option is to rely on existing mechanisms, strengthened in 2016 following the Sivens crisis.

Since the 2016 rulings, the number of consultations across France has more than trebled. The CNDP now appoints guarantors to support the consultations. The concept of consultation at an early stage was created at this time. The sequencing of the entire public debate process was modified, from the opportunity to project completion, with phases of public debate or consultation, the name used varying according to the project’s size and scope. France has a local consultation practice that is rooted in its history. Some areas are strongly influenced by this. In Northern France, in Roubaix for example, some places have existed through co-construction practices for a long time and this works well.

For it to be legitimate, the decision-making process must include shared decision-making. This is something that is deeply rooted here and is unique worldwide: the CNDP does not have an equivalent anywhere in the world. It is a unique tool that must be developed and organised differently to support the changes underway. We will have to create infrastructure which allows us to design the cities of the future, to change our behaviour. We will have to be more imaginative still. The CNDP and the public debate system are very well suited to infrastructure projects. They are less suited to major decisions that are extremely pivotal and which concern public policy: tax, the major energy choices to be made for tomorrow, etc. The idea that the government creates a citizens’ conference is probably an avenue that should be explored. It would have to be rolled out on a regional level to be adapted to the different challenges in local areas. Depending on the area, people have specific vulnerabilities that must be studied to gain a better understanding of how best to support them.

La Fabrique de la Cité: How can citizen involvement methods be improved as regards the design and implementation of large-scale projects?

Laurence Monnoyer-Smith: Today, there is a very significant change in posture among project owners, be they public authorities or private-sector companies. We have entered into the paradigm of the local ecosystem. We must absolutely understand that despite the procedure, the decisions and authorisations, we arrive in a local area. This area is common property, the air and nature are natural resources and there are positive externalities produced by all the actions of the individuals in the area. When a company arrives, it must not be perceived to be capturing externalities but rather as part of the local dynamic. It must enable the entire area to take ownership of the project. We must take on this approach for reasons concerning the environment, sustainability, local resilience. We must say that it is not because a project is not backed by public funding that we can act as we wish. If we do not take responsibility within the ecosystem in which we operate, we will face rejection.

“When a company arrives, it must not be perceived to be capturing externalities but rather as part of the local dynamic”.

— Laurence Monnoyer-Smith

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La Fabrique de la Cité

La Fabrique de la Cité is a think tank dedicated to urban foresight, created by the VINCI group, its sponsor, in 2010. La Fabrique de la Cité acts as a forum where urban stakeholders, whether French or international, collaborate to bring forth new ways of building and rebuilding cities.

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