Public debate, the digital age and democracy: a primordial challenge for Society

For Laurence MONNOYER-SMITH, Vice-President of the French national Commission on Public Debate (CNDP), the possibilities underlying the digital world should make public debate – currently under threat in France – are evolving.

Public debate, the digital age and democracy: a primordial challenge for Society

Laurence MONNOYER-SMITH was appointed V-P. to the CNDP at a moment when a major public debate in France, a project called ‘Cigeo’, relating to deep layer burial of nuclear wastes in a repository near the village of Bure, Eastern France. It proved a particularly difficult debate, concentrating all the challenges possible. “The nuclear industries which were closed shop to public enquiries because of the raison d’Etat, were only opened to public debate late on. The first public debate on disposal of nuclear wastes, in 2005, went quite well actually, but a law adopted just after, in 2006, produced some unilateral decisions, retaining only the deep burial option and leaving out two others, viz., surface and sub-surface disposal. This law had envisaged building several deep repositories on a feasibility test basis, but only one was actually dug, leaving the local population with the feeling that that had been misled as to what was the original objective of the Bure project. Some of the associations were hostile to the ongoing debate, an artificial operation to legitimise the deep-layer burial option which had in fact already been decided, as they saw it”, explains Laurence MONNOYER-SMITH. “It should be noted that the law in question does not stipulate that the wastes should be buried at this particular site, nor at this point in time.”

The nuclear option: public debate versus technocracy

The very question of whether the project is opportune or not remains open, bearing in mind that the cost will be in excess of 40 billion euros with commissioning date in 2025. However, certain opponents have prevented public meetings from taking place. “A lack of anticipation by the CNDP and of ways to include participative aspects probably are regrettable. But here we have elected officials (mayors) blocking access to public meeting rooms. In opposing the project in this manner, they are blocking a democratic debate!” stresses Laurence MONNOYER-SMITH. Debating implies giving the floor to those who fundamentally are opposed to the nuclear option, but their behaviour, call it suicidal or counter-productive, in fact serves to comfort the positions of the technocrats who can thereby decide with the citizens they serve’.

When the digital world aids public meetings

Vice-President MONNOYER-SMITH insists on the fact that this threat clearly endangers public debate: the victory of representative democracy, in the format of the 5-College debate (NGOs, Private enterprise, Trade Unions, State and Local authorities), that was initiated by the so-called ‘Grenelle of the Environment’ consultations in France that continue today in the form of environment conferences organised by the Government. “If we do not provide the proof that debating actually helps projects move forward in a peaceful context, it will be replaced by pseudo debates and among ‘those that know’ and the technocrats, at a point in time when citizens display a large degree of mistrust in political institutions. Democracy will not be protected it this were to happen”, worries Laurence MONNOYER-SMITH. In order to produce such proof, the CNDP will need to revise its tools. In the framework of Cigéo, the possibilities of the digital world aid classic public meetings (which are retransmitted live over Internet). There are on-line forums, Twitter® and Facebook® accounts to answer internauts’ questions, with a company designated to define a digital participative strategy; thus, a series of contradictory hearings were organised – like a TV plateau where viewers can intervene. The first of these hearings generated 900 connections and 125 questions in 1h30. “Nevertheless, an e-reputation cannot be built in just a few hours. We shall adapt the system, analyse and make good use of the results and continue to innovate”.

Digital, the proximity tool

The CNDP is also modernising its digital presence. Its Twitter account had 176 followers just 2 months after opening. “But there is no reason why this should not rise to 2 000!” A new site will go on line soon to provide the viewer-internauts with all the tools needed to participate, to gain in interactivity, to store and archive public debates, to organised public forums, to exist on the social networks, to mobilise the ingredients needed for ‘concertation’ upstream of the debates, etc. “As the new academic year begins, we shall recruit a Community Manager. Information must be available before a debate takes place, to identify the relay points, the populations involved, in order to organise and prepare the exchanges. The CNDP must build up a network of local partners that will contact the future participants possible. Digital possibilities don’t stop there: they also allow you to rethink the eco-systems that public debates represent, making them more comprehensible and thus bringing citizens closer to the core of the debate”, explains Laurence MONNOYER-SMITH. There still remain large areas with huge research potential, beginning with the handling of the data needed and made accessible for a given debate (a thesis will be financed by the CNDP here). Another task, producing a cartographic weighted image of arguments, for the purpose of drafting balanced minutes of the debate, as close as possible to what really took place. “We must be able to explain to our fellow citizens how their contributions were taken into account after the debate ended. The challenge can be summarised in a single question: what should we be doing to ensure that citizens feel involved? The answer to this question forces us to conjugate digital forces at play and more classic tools to invent a revised, modern form of democracy."