Public participation in comparison – the cultural disctinction (1/3)

To start my contribution on NextGen blog I’d like to present a series of 3 articles focusing on the interest of comparing France and the United States when it comes to public participation. Urban sprawl issues in the US are more and more observed as a prospective in France and in Europe. Even if the issue is far more consequent on this side of the Atlantic, New Urbanists have developed tools and processes relying on strong and coherent principles that could make sense in France when reconsidering public processes.

In the US, public participation was first designed as an emancipation tool for the poorest neighborhoods in the 50′s, but really rose in the 80′s with the progressive disinvestment of the Federal State. In the 90′s the Community Action Program invested the CDCs as catalyses of public involvement. Chaskin et al. explain in 2005 that “even if community capacity building seems to be new in public policies, communities haven’t waited the 90′s to organize themselves and have a long history.”

Participation is indeed well embedded in the original political philosophy of the country. Its grassroots are to be found in two democratic pillars; the ideal of direct democracy and the ideal of republican democracy.

If for Thomas Jefferson individual rights are far more respected in a community that allow the individual civilian sovereignty, the community ensures an intermediary role in a representative system and protects individuals from centralist drifts. In parallel to this notion of local governance, Madison argue in favor of the extensive republic, notion in which each and everyone as individual may take his contestations in front of the highest instances of the American legislature. For Johnston (1984) who speak about the US in terms of “decentralized democracy” (compared to Europe “decentralized administrations”), “this reflects a theory of individualism and of local control which very much emphasizes the rights of groups living in particular areas to act in their own perceived best interests.” Participation in the US is henceforth well relieved within institutions from local to federal governance level.

In France, this concept is best known under the notion of empowerment which underlines a strong dissociation between participative structures on the one hand, the State and public policies on the other hand. History has shown French people as “easy strikers” and it’s probably true – even if 1789 or 1968 are far in our mentalities and we observe from our comfortable couches the Arabic Spring with a slight fear of change.

A lot of people would therefore think that public participation is as well embedded in our culture as it’s in the United States, but actually it’s not the case. The need to institutionalize participation was revealed to be necessary in the 70′s when the first environmental laws were ratified. Concerning participation, a first law passed in 1983, known as Loi Bouchardeau, in order to calm a conflict on a fast train line in South East of France but apart from making public surveys compulsory for big infrastructures, it didn’t change much. It’s only in 1995 with the Loi Barnier that the principles of participation were finally written down in the French legal system. An equivalent of the CDCs were established in 2002.

Since then, public participation is still showed to be ineffective. While it is seen by the politicians as a way to look for a lost legitimacy, the large public is divided in two unequal groups, one defending the public processes as “democratic engineering” and the other as a “perpetual mockery”. A recent French study (Rui, 2010) on the last 40 years of “public involvement” shows that very few of the projects designed in concerto with the large public are really implemented.

These two contexts are fundamentally different: when one prevails with the implication of public services, the other assume the complete disinvestment of the Federal State. When one refuses the individual interests as a matter of general interest, the other serves the individual accomplishment. When one tries to look for inspiration at its oversea neighbor, the other is designing new tools and new processes to overcome public disinvestment… Whatsoever, I truly think that the strength of this comparison lies in its oppositions.

A largely diffused critic says that if public involvement tools are ineffective it’s because too many people have stopped to believe in the infernal paste of the technostructure.

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