Switzerland’s system of direct democracy is often criticised for calling people to the polls too often to vote on subjects that are too complicated, but in regional France many feel such a system is exactly what they need to make their voices heard.
About 40 kilometres over the Swiss border near Basel, some 20 people are gathered in the old mayor’s offices in Dannemarie, a town in the Sundgau region of France’s Haut-Rhin department.
Draping the front of the building are the red and white flag of Alsace and the black and white flag of Brittany, which go some way to indicating the tone of the meeting about to take place.
Having arrived early, I approach a few people – including one man dressed in the traditional costume of Brittany – to gauge the mood.
Almost before I open my mouth to introduce myself, my accent betrays the fact that I am not a local. But here among the regional French, my position as a Swiss journalist goes down quite well.
For one thing, the foreign press is interested in their cause, and for another, he is from Switzerland, the land of the referendum…
Referendum and initiative
In Switzerland a referendum challenges a decision by parliament. Some matters need voters’ approval, including membership in international organisations and security alliances as well as urgent legislation introduced at short notice.
Other parliamentary decisions, including major international treaties, only go to a public vote if they are challenged by at least 50,000 signatures collected within 100 days.
A people’s initiative is aimed at amending the constitution. Voters will have the final say on the proposal provided the campaigners successfully gather at least 100,000 signatures within 18 months.
The group is somewhat surprised when I tell them you need to gather just 50,000 signatures to force a referendum in Switzerland.
They are even more surprised when I assure them that the result of a referendum vote is “of course” applied in the law.
A referendum is exactly what this group of Alsatians is calling for. They are opposed to the redrawing of France’s regional boundaries, which was passed by the national parliament last December and will see the number of French regions cut from 22 to 13.
The current region of Alsace is set to be merged with Lorraine, Champagne and Ardennes to create a new region, the name of which has not yet been decided, but which is already being called by its acronym ALCA (Alsace-Lorraine-Champagne-Ardennes).
Elections to choose the legislative members of the new region are due to be held in December.
In Alsace, the new super-region has caused a certain level of discontent among the locals.
“It will be a region that is twice as big as Belgium,” says Paul Mumbach, mayor of Dannemarie and president of the Alsace Democratic Federation, an apolitical umbrella group for opponents of the new regional boundaries.
“Such a size will further remove citizens from the decision makers,” he says.
“Four million voters, that also means electoral campaigns costing five or six million euros. So what is going to happen is the national parties more in tune with Paris. That bothers us, because the voice of the regions will no longer be heard.”
Europa Forum Lucerne
This reportage is the first in a three-part series on direct democracy in Switzerland’s neighbouring countries.
It coincides with Europa Forum in Lucerne on April 27. The international symposium focuses on the impact of direct democracy on the economy and politics.
Among the keynote speakers are Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga, and the prime minister of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, Winfried Kretschmann.
Jean-Georges Trouillet, vice president and spokesman for the local political party, Unser Land (Our country), says the larger region will make it harder to defend local identity.
“There is no geographical, historical or economic coherence [in the merger],” he says. “In a larger region, we will not even be able to defend the crumbs that remain of our linguistic autonomy.”
After several months of vocal opposition, the movement has gained in force.
Its first aim is to organise a referendum which would give the people of Alsace the opportunity to vote directly for or against the creation of the ALCA region.
To press their demand, the opposition has increased its activities which have included demonstrations, wearing the traditional Alsace headdress in public as well as local parliamentarians from the Haut-Rhin wearing gags in the Alsace colours across their mouths.
Proof that such demonstrations are starting to bear fruit can be seen in the fact that opponents managed to gather 115,000 signatures to support the referendum in just six weeks.
But it won’t be enough. The president of the Alsace Regional Council does not have the power to call a referendum, while the prefect says that the law for the regions does not allow for the possibility.
An appeal lodged with the Constitutional Council was denied on the grounds that the fusion of the regions does not breach the French constitution.
However, opponents to the regional merger plan to continue to fight by appealing to the Council of State and the Council of Europe. They argue that France has failed to respect the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which calls for a public consultation when the territorial structures of an entity are modified.
Frustration and anger
In Dannemarie, the refusal to hold a referendum gives rise to frustration and anger. Frédérick Turon of the group Alsatians United says that in being refused a referendum, the French are being denied their democratic rights.
“They have denied us a referendum, denied us democracy, when the only thing we are asking for is to be consulted,” says Turon.
“The French have ignored international treaties, something which is a big denial of democracy. There is really a very big problem in France and democracy is just a word without any meaning.”
Many observers have for a long time taken a glum view of French political life which is more and more notable for a high rate of voting abstention and protest votes.
It is a view shared by the Alsatians opposed to the regional merger.
“Given the failure of democracy, people either don’t vote or they vote for the National Front (NF),” says Trouillet. “There is very little standing in the way of the NF reaching the second round of the presidential elections.”
Mumbach says that the French no longer believe elections will change anything and a protest vote for the FN has become a means by which people feel they can make themselves heard.
“The electoral laws mean that once a person has been voted into office, decisions are no longer questioned and the citizens are no longer consulted,” he says.
“It’s a real problem. To change things, sure there are elections, but people don’t believe anymore. Today in France, 60% of people eligible no longer vote, it’s a catastrophe. And of the remaining 40%, there is an enormous amount of votes for the NF. It’s a protest vote, a way of expressing oneself. Sometimes, as history has shown us, it’s dangerous.”
A new May ’68?
If the ballot box no longer holds sway with the people, is it reasonable to fear they will resort to a more violent means of being heard?
Eying the presidency
A founding member of the Red Caps movement is in the running for the 2017 presidential elections in France.
Christian Troadec from Finistère in the northwestern province of Brittany is currently touring the country to collect the necessary signatures for his candidacy.
Regional contenders are very rare in French politics. In 1974 a candidate won around 19,000 votes in the election, that is 0.07% of the total.
Raphaël Quemere is a member of the Bonnets Rouges (Red Caps), a protest movement that originated in Brittany in October 2013 and forced the French government to abandon a controversial “eco” tax on road transport. He says: “In relation to the denial of democracy, it’s a valid question.
“There was a lot of violence because the Britons very much felt that the institutional and administrative processes had failed them. So they rose up and burned the apparatus’ for collecting the eco tax.”
“In France, direct democracy is protest, and if that is not enough, destruction,” says Trouillet. “When you use legal means, they don’t listen to you.”
Turon adds: “At any moment, expect lightening to strike. It could lead to a revolt. We are not far from a May 1968, whether it is in Alsace or in other regions.”
Translated from French by Sophie Douez