When tragedy strikes at the core of a common sense of belonging, it awakens foundational reflections on the origins and destiny of a society. Bickering among the body politic that stirred such deep passions only the day before suddenly seemed, if only for a moment, reduced to ephemera in the grand scheme of things, revealing itself as a mere asterisk in the story of a great civilization.
This was the case in France this week after fire ravaged Notre Dame. For those seized by Kulturpessimismus, or cultural pessimism, there was no escaping the sinking feeling that the flames engulfing the 850-year-old cathedral were a metaphor of an exhausted Western civilization coming to an end. To others, it was a summons to resilience, reigniting the waning will to persevere against history’s headwinds. For them, black and orange (the colors of the firefighters’ uniforms) are the new yellow (the color of the jackets worn during the recent protest movement), supplanting the symbol of a downward spiral of discord with that of a unified and determined effort to pull out all the stops to extinguish the crisis.
In his address to the nation this week, French President Emmanuel Macron turned the populist trope on its head. Instead of playing the resentment card to divide society, he sought to raise sights by playing the civilizational card.
“I believe very deeply that it is up to us to transform this catastrophe into a moment to become — while reflecting deeply on what we have been, and what we should be — better than what we are. It is up to us now to rediscover the thread of our national project — what made us, what unites us,” he proclaimed.
Whether this moment becomes the high road to revival that Macron hopes will depend on how it all plays out when the embers of Notre Dame cool and politics returns to normal. Cracks in social unity have already begun to appear with fresh outrage over the tax breaks for billionaires who contributed large sums to the restoration of the cathedral.
Much rests on whether the discontent that has lately roiled French society will be salved by the French president’s proposals to repair despair in response to his recent months of meetings with citizens as part of his “grand national debate.”
Ironically, Macron had chosen this week to announce his findings and recommendations, actually recording his speech but canceling the broadcast when fire struck Notre Dame.
From what has been leaked, it is clear that the self-styled “Jupiterian” leader has understood that France, like democracies everywhere, is facing a crisis of distrust that has broken the link between governing institutions and the governed.
Among the most important proposals he will reportedly put on the table opens up governance by reconfiguring the relationship between direct and representative democracy. In this he is capturing the rising zeitgeist across the West of citizens demanding a more meaningful role in setting the rules and formulating the policies with which they must live.
In Great Britain, massive demonstrations have demanded a second referendum on Brexit since a lame Parliament is unable to reach a consensus. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, among others, is proposing a round of citizens’ assemblies throughout the country to accomplish what elected officials couldn’t. Environmental protestors are also calling for a citizen’s assembly to chart out an agenda on climate action. Such assemblies in Ireland last year reached a governing consensus on a range of issues from housing and climate to abortion, which the legislature is bound to implement. In Italy, the Internet-based Five Star Movement rose to power on the slogan “participate don’t delegate” and appointed the first-ever minister of direct democracy to administer citizen-initiated legislation.
And, indeed, in France, a key demand of the yellow jackets has been the introduction of citizens’ ballot initiatives that make law directly.
For statist, centralized France to move down this path marks a historic response to just how deep the chasm between governing institutions and the public has become. A 2008 constitutional amendment, never yet used because of the high hurdle to execute it, is already on the books. It provides for holding a referendum if a measure has the support of one-fifth of the members of Parliament and the backing of one-tenth of registered voters.
In his prepared remarks, Macron goes further, reportedly acceding at least partially to the demand for referendums initiated by citizens — but at the local level. And the new program of Macron’s En Marche party calls for a “citizen’s bill.” If a million citizens sign a petition for a given issue to be addressed, the government will offer them technical expertise to develop a proposed law that Parliament is mandated to debate.
The hope is that this Holy Week in secular France will be remembered as the moment when tragedy not only turned around a dispirited nation, but also contributed to an evolution of democracy that rebinds the public with the institutions of self-government in the age of distributed power.