An Interview with Camille, spokesperson for the Citizens’ Assembly of Commercy. Didier Fradin is a contributor to several citizen and participatory experiments at #MAVOIX and La Belle Démocratie. He took advantage of “The Commune of Communes” in Commercy in January 2020 to interview several members of the citizens’ assembly about the relationship between the yellow vests, communalism and municipalism.
par Didier Fradin | Février 2020
After immersing myself in the discussions and workshops of the Commune of Communes, I thought it would be good to go back over the history and recent activities of the Yellow Vests of Commercy, authors of “The Commercy Call to Action” in 2018 . The person who is referred to as Camille 1 In order to protect the identity of individuals and to curb the phenomenon of personality cults in politics, we have used the first name “Camille”, which is both a man’s and woman’s name in French. This practice stems in particular from the Zadist movements.in this interview took on the role of spokesperson for the occasion, on television and in meetings, all the while displaying genuine modesty: “I have a complex where I don’t like to read, so I’m totally dependent on those of my friends who do. They bring me the historical culture that I lack”.
With this, the Commercy Assembly of Assemblies shows us what true democracy can look like when it is not headed by an elite, a demonstration of how self-determined education among the people is capable of bringing about social transformation at the grassroots level, and beyond.
In their call to action, the Yellow Vests of Commercy insist on the need for an autonomous space, independent of the mayor’s “good will”, dedicated to citizens’ meetings. In Commercy, as on many roundabouts, they build “huts”. In other places, as in St Nazaire, they call them the “Houses of the People”. These spaces are one of the demands made by these popular movements, calling to mind urban wastelands such as the Asilio in Naples.
Didier Fradin: What are the factors that bring the movement from the hut to the municipal elections, and are you already proposing a programme?
CAMILLE : In the beginning, we held daily assemblies in the huts (60 meetings in 2 months), and we noticed, as with the national movement, a legitimate loss of momentum, so we came up with the idea of formalising the Assembly of Assemblies. The main goal was to horizontalise the yellow vest movement to avoid the emergence of Facebook generals and other kinds of “bosses” or “leaders.” Some people saw libertarian municipalism as a matter of course, an extension of the struggle at the local level, while others were fundamentally opposed to it, which we had to respect.
So we started the Citizens’ Assembly of Commercy by widening the circle, involving people working for a self-governed association (la Convive2ticipated in the meetings leading up to the citizens’ assembly with the Yellow Vests group and other citizens with no particular affiliation.) as well as other citizens.We organised a meeting with Annick Stevens, from the L’Université Populaire de Marseille, a specialist in Aristotle and libertarian municipalism, who came to guide and moderate the first citizens’ meeting in Commercy in May. Then, in June, the first real Citizens’ Assembly was launched, setting in motion the required democratic process.
In September, we asked ourselves, “Do we run a slate of candidates in the municipal elections?” After a summer of meetings on various topics (energy autonomy, waste treatment, how to make local popular assemblies), and after a vote, the idea was approved in a way that gave complete decision-making power back to the residents. This separates us from (barely) participatory slates of candidates which, ultimately, function in a conventional way. We are calling for direct democracy, to the extent that we don’t even have a set programme, only proposals to be debated in assembly after the elections, and never imposed.
“What do we hope to do if we get into power? And if we fail, what can we do anyway?”
So we started discussing the method, while refusing to make any specific proposals. We really want to put direct democracy into practice. From September to November, we made progress on that, and now we can focus on the framework of our programme. The only guarantee is that we will deliberate with the people on all proposals, not just apply them directly.
Here are the themes proposed for consideration, all geared towards the autonomy of the Commune :
- energy autonomy, (savings: return purchasing power to the residents)
- housing (environmentally friendly renovation and insulation for social housing)
- social cohesion
- improved quality of life
- economic development (cooperatives, local currencies, citizen financing)
We see these proposals as part of our social ecology, and as such they do not reflect the majority feeling of the Commune. The biggest fear, as far as direct democracy is concerned, is that we will end up with a population that would rather open a shopping centre than give itself the means to ensure a transition to eco-friendliness.
We have chosen to believe in collective intelligence, but we will try to bring enough grassroots education into the citizens’ assembly to allow these ideas to evolve. Debate is not enough. We need to set up places where people can coexist, a house of the people, self-governed spaces where people can meet, emulating the huts where the yellow vests’ story began.
We met to discuss the difficulties of making ends meet. We learned a lot from these exchanges and made real progress. This is the kind of experience that we would like to reproduce at the commune level, to share this increase in knowledge, through these spaces.
D.F: Where do you stand in relation to the fundamentals of municipalist cities, i.e., democratic radicalism, care, participatory methods and ecofeminism?
CAMILLE : We are in agreement on democratic radicalism, care and participation, of course… We have a lot of work to do on the feminist level—patriarchal thinking is still very much ingrained. Equality is not enough. We don’t dictate listening to different perspectives—it’s not a given—but it’s a wish. Above all, care is taken to avoid dominant positions, know-it-all attitudes, whatever the person’s gender. I am an educator and am sometimes shocked by the conversation surrounding women. At home, my mother did a lot of work while her boyfriend did nothing, but we children shared all the household chores. Thinking about inclusive writing is part and parcel of popular education, even if it can feel heavy at times. Clichés are often so ingrained that we don’t even ask ourselves the right questions anymore.
D.F.: How do you intend to achieve what the Spanish municipalist movement calls confluencia – a state in which several movements unite and work together?
CAMILLE : Based on what we learned from Chiapas and Rojava, we brought back the idea of reliance3The “reliance” that we are referring to here draws on the idea of a “confederation” (a group of entities that form alliances while retaining their sovereignty), which brings together free communes rather than independent states. In a confederation, sovereignty belongs exclusively to the entities that make up the whole. In a federation, “national power” is shared between the federal state and the member states; sovereignty is then held solely by the federal government.. Several groups of yellow vests, who are well aware that enthusiasm is waning, offered us their support, and this just goes to show that the idea of working in the Assembly that we launched has helped them to revive momentum back home.
Thus, the very idea of an Assembly of Assemblies can help to structure an opposition movement. With the Assemblies of Saint Nazaire and Montpellier, there is no real alliance or federation. Instead there is a desire for a platform, a gathering place, for exchange. If our slate of candidates does not win the election, the assembly will continue to exist, and the tools that we have experimented with can be used by others. That’s what the Commune of Communes is all about.
The idea of pooling resources, methods and experiments allows us to gain power, built from the ground up, so we can free ourselves from decisions that come from above, through the nation-state. It provides us with an alternative whose values are more humane, ecologically minded, and sustainable.
The Commune of Communes allows us to go beyond the yellow vest movement, which will itself continue at the level of the Assembly of Assemblies. It doesn’t just deal with the election, but with all cooperative initiatives, self-governed spaces, and everything that contributes to a political alternative, that gives power back to the masses. It is a meeting that could lead to a Confederation of free communes, as Bookchin imagined it.
We are happy with this meeting, but for the next ones, we would like the organisation to be shared by more people. Many collectives, such as St Dizier and Langres, came in order to learn how to win elections, whereas we are on a path of collective action, of moving toward a scale of direct democracy, without any fixed idea of how to do it or what it will look like.
There is a tendency among some groups to be exclusive, whereas we prefer inclusivity. Activists who are too militant often establish so many guiding principles and dividing lines that they end up undermining the very idea of coming together. The focus on ideology and theory is too high—we are not all at the same level. We need to find tolerance and, above all, give ourselves time to let this common culture emerge.
At the moment, we are working on the idea of a platform, an agora, that would require us to listen to each other and not conform to a single thought. It’s a call to the constituents, to the electoralists, to the communalists, that says: “Come! Let’s examine our common ground. If we don’t agree, it doesn’t matter; let’s see what we can accomplish with that as our starting point. Let’s fight—but let’s come together to do it, rather than everyone fighting from their own corner.”
D.F.: In terms of a political platform, what principals have been cemented in the transition from the social movement to the political sphere?
CAMILLE : The idea that remains strong is the refusal to delegate power that belongs to everyone. Representation is no longer the answer to the needs of the people. Thus, taking control of the town hall is a bit like taking back the means of action. The citizens’ assembly decides how to organise the means of action, the executive executes them, and there are cases where it is necessary to use municipal services or facilities to execute decisions (it is really the services that carry out the decisions in that they actually do the work). The mayor and the municipal council both have the role of “official validators” through “deliberation” and are also channels for transmitting requests from the Assembly to municipal services. These decisions can also be directly implemented by residents or constituents without the assistance of municipal services.
“Our humbleness comes from the fact that we cannot guarantee with absolute certainty that we will be able to keep the promises we make. What is important is that we manage to get the ball rolling with the residents’ movements—without the residents we would find ourselves in exactly the same situation that we are denouncing: making decisions on their behalf.”
If there is something to be set in stone as we transition into the political sphere, it is the Charter (constitution), which constitutes the legal link between elected representatives and citizens. The first principle to be respected is the desire for change. The charter is a moral commitment made by the elected team to the citizens. What we’re still missing are procedures; we dream of a workshop with Tristan Rechid4A resident of Saillans and a member of the Elders’ Council in this small village in the Drôme region, Tristan Réchid became the first person to win the mayor’s office by outlining his agenda through direct participation of the residents. He has since travelled all over France to offer guidance and training in participatory methodologies inspired by sociocracy. that would help us to refine our tools.
D.F.: By municipalism and communalism, what exactly are you referring to?
CAMILLE : We’re a bit surprised by this distinction—perhaps we shouldn’t get stuck on this point. Our guiding principle is to make decisions together with the people, even when there’s a lot of tension. We no longer want this system. We want a better way to live together with our environment.
For the Commune of Communes’ first session in November, which was eventually postponed, we did not have the right approach. We organised the meeting without worrying about what had been going on up to that point. And on top of that, we thought we didn’t have the time. Today, with the trade union mobilisation and the elections, it’s complicated, but some people think that if we let this moment pass, it will be too late. But we would certainly prefer to organise more collectively, with a larger panel of organisations and collectives, of free communes, which would have already worked on this kind of project, and which, based on what was said this weekend and on what we have learned from others, would truly pursue this “confederation of free communes”, which is the main goal of our initiative.
Didier Fradin, after a stint at Nouvelle Donne from 2014 to 2015, grew convinced that the political party model itself is not actually conducive to democracy. He then took on a contributing role in several experiments in citizen participation, such as #MAVOIX, which, in the run-up to the legislative elections of 2017, prepared and supported 86 candidates chosen by sortition for 43 constituencies in France and abroad. He also worked at and La Belle Démocratie, which offers guidance to local assemblies and slates of candidates for municipal elections, co-organising meetings among different local groups, called “Curieuses Démocraties” (Curious Democracies).