France has a highly centralised political system and culture. Yet it has more than 35,000 local authorities (communes) and the mayoral office is the most highly regarded elected office in France. However, local authorities have been weakened in recent years. Decentralisation laws have constrained voluntary groupings of municipalities around common issues in order for their powers and resources to be absorbed by not quite democratic inter-municipal echelons. Reduction in public spending and dependence on supra-local financing undermine local authorities’ capacity for action and maintain their subordination to the central state. The weakening of public services reduces their resilience in times of crisis (for example Covid-19) and causes the depopulation of the most rural areas. Underappreciated, badly compensated, with fewer powers and more responsibilities, many elected representatives of small municipalities end up resigning mid-term, and many small municipalities barely manage to form a voluntary team to serve a six-year term.
Despite this, municipalities are the level of government with the privilege of being battlegrounds for global struggles and are able to bring about the most changes. The need for democratisation of the political and institutional system, for social justice, and for environmental sustainability has been widely asserted in recent years with the movements of Nuit Debout, the ZAD (Zone to defend) Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the Yellow Vests movement and its occupations of roundabouts, as well as strikes and student marches against climate change.
The municipal elections of 2020 were an opportunity to seize on these issues of democracy and transition to sustainability through the unexpected emergence of citizen candidacies, formed from outside the parties and rejecting the professionalisation of politics. Even before that, environmental and democratic alternatives were already visible at the local level in cities like Grenoble, Kingerhseim, Loos-en-Gohelle or smaller villages like Saillans, Trémargat or Ungersheim.
This very heterogeneous movement has notably enabled the emergence of more than 600 participatory candidate lists, of which 40 per cent are women-led (against 21 per cent in the traditional candidacies). The lists were self-organised in nature, independent of political parties: even if they were partly made up of party activists, responsibilities and decision-making were delegated by methods of shared governance. Manifestos were constructed with residents and they demanded more direct democracy at local level. For some candidates, the lists were prepared up to three or four years before the elections and for others, more spontaneously only a few weeks before. Many were created in reaction to cronyism, authoritarianism or autocratic practices of a former mayor, or following a struggle against an economically, environmentally or socially harmful project in the local area. Others, more marginally, were created in the wake of the Yellow Vests movement, as was the case in the city of Commercy.
Although the local elections were organised the day before a strict lockdown, which favoured the re-election of more than 80 per cent of outgoing executives, more than a hundred participatory lists and close to a majority of municipalities succeeded, mainly in rural areas. The 2020 elections also set off a “green wave” with the victory of large municipalities (Lyon, Grenoble, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Poitiers) by green political forces, often allied with citizen collectives. This had the effect of reinforcing the Greens´ base in the French political arena and giving visibility to the ambitions of more radical democracy within mixed confluences of political parties and citizens.
References to municipalism, communalism, social ecology, democratic confederalism and different European experiences (for example Cities of Change in Spain 2015-2019) were widespread in urban areas and increasingly in the media in 2020. Yet they remain relatively unknown to the general public and local councillors. It is by trial and error after a first year in office that councils aspire to a different kind of organisation: more collective and more participatory for elected officials and residents. The context of Covid-19 – which initially helped strengthen advocacy for system change – today provides ideal conditions for working together, involving residents more directly and mobilising within local collectives, or moving away from current management practices in order to organise in a more democratic way and form a network. Although during the lockdown local authorities – together with solidarity structures – provided the most immediate responses locally, their supervision by the central state was also reinforced. This was due to a highly vertical management of the crisis and a strong dependence on public services subject to – sometimes dysfunctional – national decisions (for example Regional Health Agencies).
The ambition to transition towards more and better local democracy works largely against the tide of a democratic crisis. This crisis is illustrated by the record abstention rate (more than 60 per cent) in the recent departmental and regional elections of June 2021, a media space already saturated by the presidential elections of 2022 and political debates taken over by a hyper-personalisation of power and egos of party candidates. The threat of the election of an extreme right-wing president in the near future raises questions about the French municipalism’s strategy to progressively emerge at the local level between now and the next municipal elections of 2026. Even if the most active participatory communes are showing a rare determination and inventiveness, it is still too early for them to be robust and to carry enough political weight to be another option in the political imagination, or for them to seize and formulate proposals for institutional transformation in time to firmly establish the changes to public practices and policies. The transformations they bring about overhaul the functions, mentalities and representations that are culturally deeply rooted in individuals, groups and institutions. Some people agree to take this path with its changing position, new relationship to power, as well as its different construction of politics and work with elected officials, public officials and residents. But how can this capacity for transformation be opened up to supra-local levels? How does it question the forms of institutional organisation built on the model of centralised nation-states?
Support to empower these actors to act locally, encouraging experimentation and efforts to create networks in France and with Europe all contribute to helping consolidate promises of long-term change.