Giving consistence to French citizen’s participation to public environmental policies: a « Sisyphean task »
Last year we celebrated the 10 years of the French Environmental Charter. The 7th article of the Charter recognises the principles of access to environmental information and the public participation in the field of public decision related to project with environmental impacts. This article of constitutional value since 2005 is unfortunately a hollow shell. Recently the government has adopted the law n° 2015-990 on growth, business and equal economic opportunities. A draft ordonnance on environmental dialogue, based on the law clarifies the content of the article 7 and modifies the French environmental code. In the current context, this draft raises great expectations. Let’s assess its contributions.
French citizen’s participation : an old story
The public participation was first enshrined in the law dated 12 July 1983, then the “Barnier law”, adopted in 1995, institutionalised a national commission of public debates, to integrate citizen participation in the process of elaboration of the projects having an important incidence on the environment or on the town and country planning.
The environmental Charter, wished by the former French President Jacques Chirac, was finally adopted in 2004. Its 7th article recognises in particular the right to obtain the information detained by the public authorities and the right to participate in the elaboration of the public decisions having an incidence on the environment. However, although numerous implementing laws and ordinances have been passed, citizens have very little bearing on environmental decisions.
The draft ordinance carries reform of the procedures intended to assure the information and the participation of the public for the projects’ elaboration. It contains three main fields of modification of the current law. In particular, the 1st article creates a preliminary Chapter in the environmental code, specifying the contents (and thus the opposability) of the rights granted to the public by the article 7 of the Charter and the principle of participation defined by the article L 110 of the environmental code.
Also, it modernises the procedure of dialogue downstream, by generalising the dematerialisation of the public inquiry, and last but not least, it strengthens the dialogue upstream to the decision-making by the creation of a citizens’ right of initiative.
Addressing the crisis of the French representative democracy
If the European Union is going through a legitimacy crisis, she is not the only one. The French representative democracy is also living a triple crisis : crisis of efficiency of the public policies, crisis of legitimacy of laws, and crisis of citizens’ confidence in the political actors.
Indeed in France, bad news are recurrent in the field of environmental public decisions and many tensions surround projects (as the airport project of Notre-Dame-des-Landes or the Sivens’dam).
What, exacerbates tensions and conflicts is the impossibility to stop a project when the process of decision making is launched. Citizens are thus condemned to so-called consultations devoid of genuine dialogue. The feeling of powerlessness to do anything about it causes the growing frustration that the ordinance draft tries to address.
We hope that the ordinance will be enshrined at the earliest opportunity. We shall have to wait and see.