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Jo Spiegel (1/2): "There is no lasting transformation unless it is both collective and personal."

  • Thursday, November 12, 2020

  • Blog cover image

    Jo Spiegel is one of the pioneers of participative democracy. Mayor of Kingersheim from 1989 to 2020, he has been able to set up a real "democracy - construction " with its inhabitants. Dozens of initiatives, including the House of Citizenship, have transformed the city's democratic landscape.

    Jo Spiegel talks about this adventure in his latest book We decided to decide together, and for Fluicity, in "Les Voix de la démocratie".

    Voices of Democracy](": the interview series that explores the views and territorial issues of our democracy in motion.

    What drew you to participatory democracy? What was the trigger?**

    Photo of Jo Spiegel, pioneer of participatory democracy](Capture-d_e_cran-2020-11-12-a_-13.58.59.png)

    Jo Spiegel

    I went from a fairly traditional democracy in my first term to a democracy that challenged me, a more lively democracy, which I call "construction democracy". That's a very strong concept, in that it wasn't just an opinion or an anger. It was the result of a construction process.

    I don't think there was a real click. In any case, if it happened, it was the result of a long maturation. I like this concept, which suits the democratic question and which emphasizes the deep transformation. This slow maturation is only possible if one is permeable to oneself, to others, and to the world around us. It is a triple work on oneself! There are moments when we have an appointment with ourselves. It happens maybe two or three times in your life. And it is often painful! It was for me. But this appointment put me in contact with a richness that I did not know: my fragility.

    "There is no lasting transformation if it is not both collective and personal."

    I don't believe in deep transformations if they are not accompanied by personal transformations. This is something I've been carrying since the Civic Pact was launched in 2011 by second degree associations, who consider that there is no sustainable transformation of society if it doesn't include both citizens, politicians, organizations... And if it is not both collective and personal. The ecological transition is part of this same dynamic.

    That was the trigger. A personal journey at the end of my first mandate, with the idea that there is a community of destiny between democratic quality and the spiritual dimension, in the very broad sense of the term. The place of resistance is above all in the interiority and in the meaning that one wants to give to the commitment.

    In Kingersheim, we have also been willing to organize, in teams, times of reflection, seminars... which are in fact times of discernment. I like this term of "discernment" in public action! I remember, during the first mandate, having used classic tools that I consider today as tools of democratic denial.

    The term "democratic denial" is strong! An example?

    The neighborhood meetings. As if the citizens were reduced to a perimeter. This infantilizing and commercial relationship between a magic team, the mayor and his collaborators, and the inhabitants, consumers, is the same as the one between a supplier and a customer! The inhabitants are locked into the role of absolute consumer and the policy into a sacralization of the self.

    The inhabitants are fed by the fact that the major decisions belong to the elected representatives. It is not surprising that they bring up their everyday concerns, dog poop and neighborhood problems. It's a form of self-censorship.

    Any participation process must first go through citizen activation. By refusing to present oneself as a magician and to encourage democratic anaesthesia, which opens up avenues of arresponsibility, when it is necessary to build paths of hope. The citizen is a stakeholder in the common good.

    Any participation process must first pass through citizen activation.

    If we don't want local action to resemble a jar, the elected official must be able to confront the global. For me, this meant taking time to step back and say what the Gilets Jaunes said 20 years later: a gap has opened up between the representatives and the represented. This democratic crisis is a representation crisis. For me, who believes in representation, the latter only makes sense and can be re-enchanted if it becomes a "construction democracy" and continues. We have to stop thinking that democracy can be summed up in a ballot once every 5 or 6 years. This confers legality but not legitimacy in all decisions.

    All these elements led me, in 1998, to walk around the city, to give the floor to the inhabitants and to ask their opinion on the future of our city.

    We have to stop thinking that democracy is only a ballot once every 5 or 6 years.

    Illustration of the interview of Camille Morio, specialist in participatory democracy law, for the series Les Voix de la Démocratie by Fluicity

    "There is a questioning to be led on the role of the law in participative democracy"

    What are the actions and experiences implemented in Kingersheim that you think have had the most impact?**

    I am thinking of two structuring projects that have changed the decision-making process.

    1. The House of Citizenship, which we built in 2006. I talk about it extensively in my book, but what is interesting is that it all started around a petition.

    The house was supposed to be near the town hall. In the end, it was moved to an old historic building that was scheduled to be demolished, which the historical society reminded me of. I listened to their protest and to the petition of the residents, who were afraid that it would be turned into housing, and we came to a compromise: to keep social housing and showcases for the historical society on one part of the space, and to establish the House of Citizenship on another.

    This house is about fertilizing different points of view. Even people who don't participate say they are proud to have a house dedicated to them that belongs to everyone.

    House of citizenship in Kingersheim](maison-citoyennete_-.jpg)

    House of citizenship in Kingersheim

    2. The public park of Gravières, which is the reconversion of a sports wasteland, and whose project is the result of collective intelligence. A participative council (colleges of inhabitants, elected officials, experts, and organizations) worked on it for 3 years with architects. We were able to see the confrontation between the knowledgeable architects (in a sometimes very top down relationship), and the intelligence of the citizens' expertise. There were complicated moments!

    We have spent the last 30 years seeing the divorce between democracy and politics. We have to give back some democratic sense to politics.

    I would also like to come back to 3 symbolic actions that we have taken, which go beyond what we have built. Politics needs symbols.

    1. Stop the mayor's wishes, with the small fours and the long speech... It's nice, but it's still a bit self-centered! This event was no longer in keeping with the eco-system we had set up. So we transformed it into "Kingersheim's Greetings": more popular, outside, with a show, food brought by everyone, a 5 minutes speech by the Mayor to launch the civic pact, etc. Meaning rather than complacency.

    2. No more inaugurations, no more ribbon cuttings, but time for appropriation by the inhabitants. The first time we opened the Gravières park, it was at 4pm at the beginning of the vacations. All the children took possession of this space of which they became co-owners.

    3. The choice of students who apply for summer jobs. There are often a hundred of them for thirty positions - or rather 15 positions, but the young people agree to share the work time, to double this number. I welcome these young people to the House of Citizenship with their parents and we decide on the allocation by drawing lots. This is equality once again. The inhabitants are moved by this approach. They feel that the values of the Republic** - which are celebrated on May 8 and November 11, but which are often not applied - have been put into practice. Each young person has the same chances as another. Once selected, he or she is put before a jury of experts and collaborators to determine the interest he or she has in working for the city. There is both equality of opportunity and the fact of carrying the image of the city hall.

    It's a different view of politics and public policy. We have spent the last 30 years seeing the divorce between democracy and politics. We need to give democratic meaning to politics.

    Visual from the series Voices of Democracy, dedicated here to David Carmier from the Ministry of Local Government and Territorial Cohesion

    Read the interview with David Carmier: "The State and local authorities must act as partners in the crisis"

    You favor "construction-democracy" rather than democracy of opinion. Does this mean: dropping the parties in favor of the general interest as the only objective?**

    Great question! When I left the PS, there was no question of founding a party. However, I did it today with Place Publique! There are privileged places of mediation and citizen training: the unions, the associations and the political parties.

    I do not believe in direct democracy, but in a grassroots democracy.

    The problem is that the political parties reflect the democratic crisis. For a long time, they were places of civic education and collective intelligence, of debate, conviction and political vision... and they have progressively become spaces for the conquest of power. As much as the participative councils that we have implemented in Kingersheim are extremely subversive because they question people on their certainties. But I also think that it is possible to carry convictions and build dynamic compromises. It is the will and the capacity to build something common together.

    I do not believe in direct democracy which would go beyond representative bodies, intermediate powers, and especially deliberative quality prior to decision-making quality. This is why, from the outset, the composition of our participatory councils represented France in miniature: a college of citizens (volunteers and/or drawn by lot), a college of elected representatives, both majority and minority, a college of internal and external experts (I believe very much in technical expertise) and a college of organizations (associations, companies, unions).

    The risk of political self-interest is autocracy; the risk of "all expert" is technocracy; the risk of "citizenism" is populism; the risk of "all organization" is corporatism... To avoid all these infantile diseases of democracy, we must put people around the table. This is what I call a free-standing democracy with the philosophy of fertilizing different points of view. Nothing more difficult, but the promise of plurality, enriched by dialogue.

    Read the 2nd part of the interview