Didier Fradin contributes to several citizen participation experiments at #MAVOIX and La Belle Démocratie. He was present at the Commune of Communes conference (January 18–19, 2020), the first gathering of free municipalities and municipal initiatives, organised by the Citizens’ Assembly of Commercy, the city of madeleines, situated in eastern France. He shares with us his insider’s view on what’s at stake behind the democratic citizen movements active in France at the intersection of the yellow vest movement, municipalism and communalism.
by Didier Fradin | February 2020
The event was not to be missed—the chance to meet with the heroes behind the Commercy call to action, whose faces were all familiar to me, as I had seen them time and time again while editing a video on democracy in which they appeared directly after another group of yellow vests, tagged #MAVOIX. Originating from the yellow vests movement (1), the term “libertarian municipalism”, which appeared at the Commercy Yellow Vests’ Assembly of Assemblies, comes from Murray Bookchin, a theorist in the field of social ecology and libertarian municipalism, also known as communalism. (Click here for an excellent article by Ballast on the topic in French).
What is most striking at first is the kindness and modesty of the “scary” yellow vests here, far removed from the reputation constantly put forth by the media and a far cry from the image of the insignificant, destructive and environmentally irresponsible grumblers that they are portrayed as every day on the news. So much for unbiased reporting…
As night falls, I arrive at the home of Lucas, my host for the weekend who lives in a big house in the centre of a small village 20 km from the meeting venue. A fire is already crackling away in the wood stove: “There will be about 15 or 20 of us,” he tells me, “but the anti-nuclear meetings in Bure had as many as 30.” Municipalism had already been a topic of discussion among the protestors in Bure (2) when about 50 people, who had not previously been particularly involved in the anti-nuclear struggle, gathered around the idea of forming a yellow vest group. The anti-Bure activists lent their support, and their idea of resistance huts inspired the Commercy group to build their own “hut” (3), a symbol of grassroots fights and solidarity, but it was destroyed in March 2019 upon the mayor’s request.
Lucas, originally from Poland, runs a business that recycles ambulances for use in Africa, Asia or other areas with dire healthcare conditions. He sees to it that “at least the wounded and sick can benefit from a moment of relative comfort”. His words sound enigmatic, but I’m instantly on board. The man knows what he’s talking about. A bit later, some Parisians joined us, from Montreuil, Pantin, Paris Centre, and nobody, except the vegetarians of course, will ever forget the taste of Lucas’ pâtés lorrains. Seriously, I was hooked from the first bite. Thank you, my friend!
What surprised me the next morning was noticing once again the difference between federation and confluence. As philosopher Edgar Morin (4) often points out, “We are numerous, but dispersed”. The first thing that comes to mind then is to federate, to unite everything under the same banner in order to move up the ladder and increase in numbers.
The theme of the meeting, Commune of Communes, seemed clear to me, as would later be confirmed by Steven Mathieu, assuming the role of spokesperson for the Assembly of Commercy. It posed a question to all communes that define themselves as “free”: How do we network, how can we (be a) commune? And how do we do this without the pressure to turn it into a cookie-cutter movement, even if it seems more practical. The sauce needs time to set; you can’t cut corners or else you’ll miss the point. That’s what the Spanish call “confluence”.
Groups of candidates running on a platform of participatory or direct democracy gathered in Commercy to learn about new best practices, with many activist groups and thinkers calling for mobilisation. This level of diversity should be seen as an asset: established, accepted and united, it is the melting pot that will enable a complex civil society to emerge and take form, a society that will have to learn to deliberate. And that’s a reflection of exactly what sparked the yellow vest demonstrations in the first place: “Something’s wrong with the norms imposed on us! We have to take things into our own hands!”
Having made this observation, we still have to figure out how to create networks, how to form bonds, both physical and virtual, and, especially in group settings, how to re-inspire those who have lost the habit—not to mention the courage—to speak out.
Communalism or Municipalism
The gap between municipalism and communalism was never really clear to me, no doubt because words ending in “-ism” suggest an overly ideological and determinist tinge on a movement that we would rather see as global and inclusive. But there in the assembly, the difference was noticeable. Communalists think that municipalists simply want to win elections, whereas they see communalism as reserved for small-scale action on a more grassroots level, where everyone can really make a difference.
For me, these two levels are interconnected and, as we’ve seen in Spain, and even more so in Italy, both are movements of local struggle, forming municipalist platforms out of collectives made up of residents. Something to think about…
And amidst the liveliness of a traditional roundtable discussion, with everyone sharing their own points of view, the different analyses and expectations of the local groups in attendance began to emerge:
- Many are in the process of drawing up a charter, such as the Assemblée populaire d’Ugine (People’s assembly of Ugine).
- In Gard, the GJ (Gilets Jaunes) de Sommières (Yellow vests of Sommières) are trying to “make some noise”. They propose creating a communication commons. Now that’s inspiring!
- Some are aware that they may be reinventing the wheel, but at least “they’re thinking”.
- Some local groups doubt their own legitimacy: “We’re not smart enough, we don’t really know who we represent.”
- The “Bragards” of Saint Dizier talk about their “city of the unemployed, of the resigned”.
- In Langres, the slate “Maintenant j’agis” (Now I take action) wants to rent a space in order to be more visible. “What’s that pulsing through us?”
- Among the Yellow Vests of Montreuil, communalism is popular. They advocate for social ecology—just like Nous-sommes Pantin (We are Pantin) who, incidentally, consider themselves municipalists—they want rent control and to stop gentrification. These initiatives need to be visualised as maps. The practices need to be identified…
- A recurring question: should we oppose individual citizens and parties?
In Paris (Décidons Paris [Let’s decide, Paris]), they want to take city halls and create “common spaces”. The initiative “Faire Commune” ([Be a] Commune), against all odds, wants to “affirm the right to the city. This right includes the idea of the good life, a fair and dignified life built on the cornerstone of mutual aid.” It advocates for a “non-capitalist lifestyle organisation”, overtly adheres to communalism and draws on the work of Murray Bookchin, who theorised on libertarian municipalism and social ecology, and, lastly, it looks to Syrian Rojava and the Zapatista movement in Chiapas. Former footballer and candidate in the 2020 municipal elections Vikash Dhorasoo supports communalism and, through the “Décidons Paris !” slate, allies himself with Rojava.
“My friends, the world needs your ‘Commune of Communes’”
…cries Janet Biehl, widow and closest colleague of Murray Bookchin. Continuing the municipalist project, she is looking for possible incarnations of it in the real world. She excuses herself for not having been able to attend but expresses, via video message, her joy at seeing the revival of her partner’s expression, “commune of communes”.
Unlike other libertarian approaches, Bookchin did not reject political institutions as long as they promote freedom, which is far from the case of our institutions. If taking up the challenge of citizen self-government is best done locally, then there is a desperate lack of legislative framework to do so. According to Bookchin, only a confederation of municipalities will be able to face the key challenges posed by the inevitable opposition of the capitalist system and the nation state. A confederation alone would be able to create enough pressure to enable the needed framework to be established.
Philosopher Annick Stevens, a specialist in Aristotle at the l’Université Populaire de Marseille who facilitated the first Citizens’ Assembly of Commercy, explains: “Janet helps us to anchor our search for political autonomy in the best part of our historical heritage, to anticipate all of the difficulties that will, no doubt, arise during this long process and, above all, to rediscover the energy and enthusiasm without which radical change is not possible.”
Enthusiasm born of anger
Even if we clearly share anger at the way the state restricts mass mobilisations that it cannot control, several groups report that there remains an unresolved contradiction between the wishes of many residents for more parking in the city centres and the conditions of ecological responsibility. This is without a doubt one of the biggest impediments to mobilisation on a local level. In the short-term, deliberation among residents seems more necessary than a strategy for winning local elections. For some yellow vests in Commercy, what is really needed is to find a balance between collective life, action and deliberation in order to cater to the aspirations of the majority and move forward sustainably. For them, this is the model that we should strive for in municipalities and throughout society in general.
Consumerist habits are still too deeply ingrained in our DNA for us to not get distracted from our transitional goals by the smallest attack on our sacred “purchasing power”. Pension reform is a good current example which has relegated climate and social justice causes to the back burner. It turns out that an attack on people’s bank accounts will get them to mobilise more than the threat of underlying dangers, even in the long-term.
This is why we need grassroots education, an incubator of ideas that makes an effort to integrate the views of women, of course, but also of young people as the up-and-coming generation in question, in order to determine what is needed to create the right conditions for successful collective emancipation.
And that is where Mouts, cohost of the slightly absurd France 5 programme “Nus et Culottés” (Naked and bold) (5) and participant in the “Maintenant j’agis” citizens’ slate of Langres, proposes a workshop called “la Joie” (Joy) to compliment the morning workshops which he finds too serious. He points out a key issue here: “Joy versus reason: isn’t activism (so often sacrificial) deadly?” The workshop was truly successful, especially among the women, which I take as a good sign…
I foray into other, much more serious workshops where a proposal is made to rebrand the Municipal Council as the “Chamber for the registration of decisions taken by citizens’ assemblies”. Rightly so. But at this stage, I can’t help but ask what the intention of this “Commune of Communes” meeting is. For me it raises the idea of confederation, networking, upscaling and, finally, activist groups, constantly engaging in the same debates about the organisation and ideology of a movement whose main interested party, the people, are still absent. And it is in fact the people who know how to express their anger by taking to the streets but who are still not inclined to spend entire evenings rebuilding their world, or even their own neighbourhood for that matter.
How do we bring everyday people into our process of reflection? How to lead them onto the road to victory when they don’t seem to feel the need for it?
“Too much head, not enough heart.” Back in the “joy” circle, I let loose a favourite quote by my friend Patrick Viveret, philosopher, economist and champion of Buen Vivir: “It’s time to initiate an erotic global strategy!” A guaranteed success, the group decided that we need creative actions, that our actions should become our playground. Eventually the ice breaks and tongues begin to loosen: “We need emotions to catch on and spread, but more than the false joy already sold to us by advertising”, “We are bodies above all, we are desire”. Some see a direct link to ecofeminism; experts will be the judge.
Concluding as a point of departure
At the end of the weekend, after a long exchange with Steven Mathieu, one of the founders of the slate of candidates and who comes off quite well in the media, and a few moments before a demonstration with John, another member of the team, an idea emerged, which I share, that a strong symbolic gesture has entered the municipalist agenda in France, signalling a clear invitation to all movements, slates and local assemblies that are involved in helping citizens seize back the power to take action, in all the diversity that this movement represents.
There really were a lot of people at the gathering, which gave us hope for the future of confederation among free communes. A house of the people opened up in Nancy more or less during the gathering, which I think is also a sign. We still need to create what the Spanish call “mareas”, an overflowing tide carrying with it stories of all the nascent municipal experiences, whether or not they win votes.
What remains important for the Yellow Vests of Commercy, and what I’m personally very happy about, is that, beyond the names we assign to things— “local assemblies” or “municipal slates”—there are activists involved in the creation of a network of communes that cross the boundaries of institutions with the aim of changing the current balance of power and establishing an opposition power at the heart of libertarian municipalism.
Of course, within the polymorphic yellow vest movement, municipalism is far from being a majority ideology, but the experience in Commercy, in addition to those of Saint Nazaire (6) and Montpellier (7), is a significant start to a series of changes that, over time, could unite other political forces in the fight for political platforms capable of carrying out the vision of the Commons.
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 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).
1. The Yellow Vest Movement, named after the yellow-coloured vests worn by protestors, is an unstructured and sporadic protest movement that began in France in October of 2018. The movement was born out of the outcry over the increase in petrol prices resulting from an increase in the domestic duty on consumption of energy products (TICPE).
2. The network “Sortir du nucléaire” (Phase out nuclear power), active in Commercy since the 90’s, has rallied against the storage of radioactive waste at the “Bure laboratory”, some 40 kilometers away.
3. At the Commercy call to action the encouragement to build “huts” or “houses of the people” aims to empower social movements as they relate to local government.
4. Edgar Morin is a philosopher and sociologist. He is a broad thinker (as opposed to a narrow thinker, whose thoughts tend to dilute reality). Morin participates in “Osons les jours heureux” (Let’s dare to be happy), along with Patrick Viveret and myself, a group of organisations aiming to establish an alternative world founded on the possibility of the Good Life. He is also the author of the call to action “Changeons de voie changeons de vie” (Let’s change paths and change our lives), linked in the text.
5. Nus et culottés (Naked and bold) is a French television programme broadcast on France 5 since July 26, 2012. Nans (Nans Thomassey) and Mouts (listed as Guillaume Mouton in the credits since 2018) attempt “bold” itinerant experiences by setting out “naked” to achieve a goal based on one of their dreams.
6. The Assembly of Assemblies in Saint Nazaire, following Commercy, hosted an impressive event (April 5-7, 2019), clearly voicing the desire to break away from capitalism.
7. In November of 2019, 500 Yellow Vests gathered at the Assembly of Assemblies in Montpellier to mark the anniversary of Act 1 of the movement, and calling for the joining together of “all those fighting for causes similar to our own” and who seek to “become masters of their own destiny” and long for “the collapse of the system”.