PARIS — Never before had this kind of effort been so successful in France. In the span of two weeks, starting in mid February, an online petition to say "No, thanks!" to a proposed labor-reform bill collected a million signatures. The government decided, subsequently, to amend the imitative and put off submitting it to the legislature.
Late last year, another petition — in this case to support Jacqueline Sauvage, a woman who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her abusive husband — netted more than 435,000 signatures in two months. In January, President François Hollande pardoned her.
Do these victories represent a powerful new model? Are they exceptions? Is indignation with a few clicks becoming an unavoidable tool for direct democracy? Either way, citizen action of this kind is growing at a time when people are increasingly disenchanted with traditional systems of political representation.
"Online petitions are indicators of opinion trends and that's what makes them interesting, because apart from opinion polls, we don't have that many tools," says Romain Badouard, an information and communications researcher at the University of Cergy-Pontoise, outside of Paris.
All causes great and small
Online petitions are modern manifestations of something much older, but the Internet's vitality is breathing new life into the approach. Because they're connected to social networks, the online platforms that aggregate these petitions also make it possible for them to spread almost instantly, giving this mode of expression an unprecedented visibility. And the French are loving it.
The sector's leader in France, Change.org, has 7 million users (135 million worldwide). The other two main websites are Avaaz.org (4.3 million users in France) and Mesopinions.com (4 million). Several more confidential platforms also exist.
These online initiatives are used for anything and everything: to oppose planned legislation, demand new legislation, denounce an environmental scandal, defend consumer rights, express outrage at animal cruelty, even to save a TV show. But very few go "viral." Of the 48,000 petitions posted on Change.org France since it launched in 2012, fewer than 60 got 100,000 signatures or more. Only past that threshold can you really talk about a trend in public opinion.
But even in those cases, what does this trend actually represent? Are these activists won over to a cause? Are they ordinary citizens? Petitions that go viral are often launched by PR professionals. The person behind the labor reform petition, for example, is Caroline De Haas, a former PR consultant and trade unionist.
"With the Internet, civil society can easily form individual-driven groups with minimal management, and parties or trade unions are often crucial in the success of online petitions thanks to their own networks and their knowledge in how to rally people," sociologist Dominique Cardon, professor at University Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, explains.
But protest movements can also emerge in unexpected places and thanks to ordinary citizens. A 19-year-old French woman started a petition, for example, to demand that Tampax make the list of components visible on its tampon packs. It got more than 250,000 signatures and prompted the Health Ministry to announce, in early March, that it will investigate the matter.
Activism for slackers?
This megaphone of public opinion is just one of many civic tech tools that are reinventing people's relationships to democracy. But as the impact of this digital commitment grows, so does the criticism. First up is that the tech tools aren't representative of all citizens.
"Not all Internet users are on social networking sites, and 20% of the French population still isn't using the Internet at all," says Thierry Vedel, researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). "If petitions, historically speaking, had so much impact, it's because signatories would put their name on it: They were engaging publicly, sometimes at their own risk. Are people behind their computer screens ready to do such a thing?"
Going out actively looking for the petition you want to sign on paper, or agreeing to stop in the street to discuss and think about an issue that you'll finally support by signing doesn't involve the same level of commitment as touching your smartphone screen a couple of times while browing social media sites.
This is what Evgeny Morozov calls "slacktivism" — activism for the inactive. In his 2011 book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, the essayist and fellow at Georgetown University warns against what he describes as cyber-utopianism: a tendency to think, either by ignorance or laziness, that one click on the web equals political or societal commitment. In reality, it's actually barely an action at all, just a one-time, ephemeral gesture guided more by emotion than reflection.
Take the example of the French jeweler in the southern city of Nice who shot dead a young man who had just robbed his store, and who got the support of more than one million people on Facebook in three days. Or the 250,000 signatures demanding "an exemplary sentence" against a young man in Marseille who filmed himself throwing a cat against a wall.
But if online petitions aren't the alpha and the omega of citizen expression, Dominique Cardon still sees them as a new tool of the social debate. "The Internet is still a slightly wild place that produces its own forms of self-regulation, for example counter-petitions," the sociologists notes, highlighting that the emergence of such opinion trends doesn't mean they represent the majority of the people.
"Before the referendum on Scottish independence, the majority of Scottish people expressing their views on Twitter were in favor of it," he recalls. "And yet, in the ballot box, the Scottish people decided otherwise. Petitions aren't all that representative. But by bringing new elements to the public debate, they give democracy a breath of fresh air."
This multitude of clicks can also be a lever to encourage people to take their protest to the streets, or to give trade unions an extra argument in their negotiation. And as the French labor reform petition shows, governments do sometimes pay attention. French Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri responded directly to the petition's signatories on Change.org. Her ministry even launched a new Twitter account for the occasion.
But beyond this sort of official communication, what's the actual weight of these popular initiatives on the political chessboard? In France, since 2010, petitions that gather more than 500,000 signatures and refer to a topic of public interest can be submitted to the Economic, Social and Environmental Council. But the body only has a consultative value, and this applies to paper petitions only. In other words, the legal impact is very limited, or at least much more so than in other countries.
In the U.S., online petitions can be consulted on the White House's website. And the White House must respond to those that get 100,000 in the first 30 days. In the UK, the Petitions Committee presents Parliament with any petition that reaches 100,000 signatures, regardless of what it's about. For example, British lawmakers had to symbolically discuss banning Donald Trump from entering the country after a petition asking just that (after he proposed to "temporarily" ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.) got more than 576,000 signatures. In Finland, a petition of more than the required 50,000 signatures will force the country's legislature to discuss leaving the euro.
Should we do the same in France? Should our deputies be forced to debate issues that have met a certain threshold of signatures? It's a question that leaves activists divided. "For me, a petition is a tool in the power struggle," says Caroline de Haas. "The goal of the petition against the labor reform is to convince the government to change the law, not to become a formal institutional mechanism."
Karine Plassard, who started the movement to support Jacqueline Sauvage, thinks otherwise. "Contrary to what we often hear, French people are still interested in politics," she says. "They want to make things change, but they do so with other means than voting. Petitions are one of the news ways to engage. It should have an impact on parliamentary debates."
For researcher Romain Badouard, the goal of such efforts is not so much to influence the decisions politicians make as to force them to take a position. "This mode of expression frightens them because it's new and sometimes violent, but they'll have to learn to live with it and agree to debate," he predicts. Debating, sure, but what comes after that?
The democratic decision process is something complex, so there's no chance that a petition can change the legislation on its own. They can be very effective, on the other hand, when they are directed against businesses. In 2015, after one year of protesting and more than 100,000 signatures, NGO Foodwatch made supermarket chain Leclerc bend, forcing it to change the labels on its turkey ham, which it claimed was "100% fillet meat" even though it contained a sizeable amount of water and additives.
Another example among many is the petition by environmentalist association Bloom against deep-sea bottom trawling. Launched in June 2013, it got more than 900,000 signatures and convinced many large retailers to stop fishing below 800 meters.
For Benoît Thieulin, founder and director of communication agency La Netscouade, this is where the true power of online petitions lies. "Citizens can thus become actors and change behaviors," he says. "It's a way for civil society to regain the upper hand."