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Libertarian Municipalism and Citizen’s Movements in France

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Hadrien Delahousse presented the following essay at the 2012 Social Ecology colloquium in Marshfield, Vermont.  This is his revised version, which seeks to incorporate some of the themes we discussed last summer in Vermont:

How Libertarian Municipalism Can Help Citizen’s Movements in France

Libertarian Municipalism is very little known in France. The idea of a local municipal assembly open to everyone taking political decisions is strange or not realistic to perhaps 97% of the people. Despite looking for alternative actions and information over more than 10 years, I discovered Murray Bookchin and Libertarian Municipalism only a year ago! Fortunately I can read English, because there are only perhaps three papers on the net in French about it, and only one Bookchin book is available in bookshops: Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future. To find the book by Janet Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism, you have to order it from Canada.

This paper will expose a point of view, a very subjective one: first, that there is much work to do in France and other European countries to introduce libertarian municipalism, to initiate such movements in villages, cities or blocks and in this way convince people that from collective local actions we can act on matters that generally fall under international, European or national laws; and, secondly, that French people, of all kinds, are in search for such practices as the ones leading to local face to face assemblies. They are in search of social links and of a collective sense and direction. Such collective political practices are married to the recreation of face to face relationships in a community, notably between elders and young people, and that is what French people are looking for.

French people’s need for constructive radical messages

Lots of French people are conscious of our society’s problems, but a majority – particularly the youth – are hopeless, disgusted about politicians’ politics and feel powerless. Here is a good “compost” for Libertarian Municipalism. It is its very radicality that allows me to think that our French young people could be really receptive to such ideas and practices, and therefore bring their huge assets to try to build an assembly movement in their city, village or block. Such a movement will have to contradict another part of the population which manage, by mass media, to make people sincerely believe that politicians do the best they can to make things better and that the citizen is not competent to treat and discuss such matters as economics, foreign affairs or even politics.

A big problem is that positive and constructive messages or experiences around the world, such as the case of local face to face assemblies, don’t reach people at all, who therefore can not see alternatives to our political system, and can not see that we are capable of making good political decisions together. It is a problem.

One French municipalist reality, the village of Vandoncourt (1000 dwellers) is totally unknown in France. In this village a citizens’ movement, won the municipal elections at the end of the seventies, and, respecting the frame of the French constitution, managed to establish 8 thematic face-to-face assemblies, open to every citizen, which make political decisions, the municipal council just formalizing them.

Just as with the face-to-face democratic experiences existing in Europe or in the world, social ecology and libertarian municipalism are very little known in France; To almost the totality of French people the words “social ecology” do not evoke a political alternative. But nevertheless I’m convinced, for the reasons seen below that the messages of Libertarian Municipalism could actually 1) reach French people; and 2) actively help to develop the hope citizens need and look for, and could reach a lot of people in our present context because of its inclusiveness. In France, from a psychological perspective, the inclusiveness of Libertarian Municipalism – the fact that local assembly is open to every citizen – is a crucial point.

Citizen movements in France : The need to cooperate around a positive goal

Lots of French citizens are militantly active in the political or social field. As in the US, we have lots of non-profit organizations with members fighting for a better world. One problem is that most of the time these organizations are financed by the central State or more frequently by French local authorities. The greatest part of our potential counterpower organizations are therefore entirely dependent on state authorities. Consequently there is competition among them to get public money, to defend their existence and to grow, and therefore they don’t cooperate with one another.

We have also a profusion of political organizations or movements, but the problem is that these organizations are almost systematically against something (against finance, for example; even the Occupy Movement in France has been named by mass media “Les indignés” = the “outraged”) but most of the time they do not propose any social alternative. Therefore, even if we have lots of militants and citizens who fight everyday for a better world, they don’t have a constructive alternative to suggest or to build on: that explains the limits of their actions and the reasons why they are not attractive for the rest of the citizens.

Fortunately, things have been moving fast, and there is a citizen renewal – even if a modest one for the moment ­ for example with audit commissions of the Debt organized by citizens in many parts of the French territory, or with organizations calling for real democracy. Beyond this, we can notice that there is a multiplication of radical ecological initiatives in France, such as new ecological villages, short circuits for distribution of food, young people who are new to farming, organic products, local and ecological currencies, etc. All these initiatives generally share the same spirit, and practice democratic decision making in assemblies. One group of ten people has even created the “’Université Du Nous” (UDN = “University of the We”) to initiate and train individuals or organizations to collective decision making processes. An interesting point is that their economic model is founded on “conscious participation”: for a training of 3 days you pay according to how much you think the training brings you and how much you can give.

Some of these actors are linked together, by a way or another. Thus, the Transition Towns Network, which has been growing and which constitute a good and opened rallying pool in France, is linked with another citizen’s movement, Colibris. All these organizations would benefit exploring libertarian municipalism: even if some of their members are skeptical about some points of libertarian municipalism, these movements are potentially in harmony with its vision, spirit and practices.

The social ecology movement Colibrisand its 25 open-space events

There is actually a social ecology initiative called ”Colibris” in France, which is worth knowing. It was launched in 2008. The Mentor is named Pierre Rabhi, one of the pioneers in France of organic agriculture, who in his talks mentions Libertarian Municipalism. The word “Colibris” has been chosen in reference to the bird and to an Indian legend according to which each one of us should do its part, even if it seems a drop of water in the ocean, and implies that collectively we can change society by ourselves. Colibris has been visiting every protagonist of change on French territory since 2009: its major conclusion has been that these protagonists not only don’t cooperate with each other, even when they are on a same field on a same territory, but they don’t even know each other! Colibris is therefore a citizens movement that aims to gather individuals, non-profit organizations and actors of social, economic and environmental change (60,000 members actually) by sharing and fostering practices and cooperations to change society now, and by ourselves, without counting on politicians. Therefore the mission of Colibris has been focused on offering the tools for citizens and organizations to cooperate. Colibris has also concluded that of all their visits and projects that the Transition Towns Network was a good rallying point, because they could have a shared recognition in it.

Colibris has encouraged a big “political” campaign actually and in several cities and towns in France there happened to be “open-space” events – initiated by citizens themselves – on the model of Harrison Owen’s “open-space technology”, where participants alternate between gathering all together in a circle, and in smaller workgroups, working on ”How to foster the transition in our territory”. One or 2 days of such discussions allows the emergence of new actions, new cooperations, and sometimes more regular meetings, and these could be the impetus for local assembly movements. These open-space events are in the spirit of local assemblies, and could eventually inspire a movement of local face-to-face assemblies.

The theory and practice of libertarian municipalism therefore answers perfectly to the aims of current citizen’s movements, and would be of highly valuable interest for them, particularly for the Occupy movements in France.

Limits of the Occupy movement in France

The Occupy movements in France had some difficulties with growth because of the lack of clear aims, vision or project and because of the lack of organization and methods in the assembly process. The disposition of the assembly frequently is not in a circle (people don’t see each other) and the lack of clear practices and ground rules for speaking leads to numerous long speeches by individuals during the assemblies. People tend to expend themselves with criticisms and negative or “politician” speeches instead of constructive and positive ones, with the result of paralyzing the assembly’s potential initiatives and discouraging its members.

In short, these assemblies are not real places for debate, discussion and decision making, but a tribune to express people’s discontent with the society. Therefore the meetings and the movement can hardly be attractive. I’m convinced that Libertarian Municipalist practices could be really useful and that more generally the political theory and practice of social ecology can inform helpfully the strategic decisions facing Occupy.

Documents are now spreading on the Occupy network on practices to animate a local assembly. To me it is crucial for spreading Libertarian Muncipalism that we develop the means, ways, practices and techniques to allow healthy discussion, debate and decision making in a face-to-face local assembly.

For a local assembly movement to grow in France, processes of discussion and decision making should assure that each person can speak, that a shy person could comfortably express their feelings or objections to a project or decision. This could allow a gathering process around a shared spirit, as opposed to the divisions (social, ethnic. etc…) that French politicians like to maintain and encourage.