France: From Rousseau To Yellow Vests To The Popular Referendum

Yellow vests protest in front of Paris' Opera on Dec. 15
Yellow vests protest in front of Paris' Opera on Dec. 15


PARIS — In the sometimes cacophonous concert of demands from France's "yellow vests' protest movement, one measure keeps coming back: the Référendum d'initiative citoyenne (RIC), or "Citizens' Initiative Referendum," which allows individual citizens to submit a legislative text to a popular vote, and to thus express their opinions in the ballot box rather than just via their Facebook accounts.

This request is an expression of a legitimate critique of the current French presidential system, in which the chances for citizens to make their voices heard are rare: Every five years, a quasi-monarch is elected on his good looks, secures a majority in Parliament, and we're left with the opinion columns or the street to voice our protest. The Fifth Republic turns us citizens into eternally cranky children. At a time when so-called "disintermediation" is sweeping away traditional economic sectors, there's no reason why the same disintermediation shouldn't emerge in the political arena, by giving citizens the means to express themselves directly. Basically, the Citizens' Initiative Referendum would be in line with the democracy Jean-Jacques Rousseau dreamed of, one in which "everyone steals from the assemblies' — including digitally.

Representative democracy has become obsolete.

But the question posed by the Citizens' Initiative Referendum goes beyond the simple aspect of citizen participation. By allowing the people to potentially reign on any subject, the Citizens' Initiative Referendum de facto treats popular sovereignty as unlimited. No charter of rights can resist the tyranny of a majority that expresses itself without a filter. Are we sure that "the people" should vote on same-sex marriage (as in Ireland or Romania), mosque minarets (as in Switzerland), migrant quotas (as in Hungary) or the death penalty (as in California and soon, perhaps, in Brazil)? Should the Constitution stand in their way, can't the people legitimately just ask to change it? Is it any surprise that the popular referendum has become a priority for the extremes of both ideological camps, left and right, or that the very populist Mexican president promises to govern with referendums?

Vote vote vote — Photo: Arnaud Jaegers

Binary choices, isolated from systemic effects, are unsuited to the complexity of our open world. The British are finding out that no one actually knows how to define Brexit, so much so that a new referendum is now being discussed to interpret the results of the previous one. We must contrast direct democracy with the liberal conception of a limited sovereignty, one that sets strict limits to what is within the competence of collective decision. This was the response of Benjamin Constant, a defender of the parliamentary system, to the ideas of Rousseau.

Nevertheless, representative democracy has become obsolete, forcing us to imagine forms of political expression that are both more direct than legislative elections and less simplistic than referendums. Nothing impossible, in theory. I see at least two of them:

The first is local direct democracy. Let's not forget that, in Switzerland, the cantons practiced citizen votes for many centuries, before this way of functioning was replicated at the national level, in the second half of the 19th century. I myself had the honor to attend the Landsgemeinde ("People's Assembly") of the canton of Glarus, where citizens gather once a year in the main square and spend an entire day proposing, amending and voting on laws. It's by discussing boring and practical subjects, on which everyone can develop an informed opinion, that we learn the art of compromise and the need for tolerance.

Binary choices are unsuited to the complexity of our open world.

At a national level, it's possible to think of a kind of delegative democracy, such as the one theorized by Bryan Ford some 15 years ago, which is the subject of numerous experiments throughout the world. It consists in transferring your vote to voluntary delegates (and not to elected representatives), with the possibility of taking your vote back at any time. Blockchain technology is emerging that would make it possible to organize a string of delegations, giving everyone the opportunity to participate, according to their motivation, and to encourage delegates to develop their own skills. It's still a distant dream, but what institutional reform didn't start with a dream?

In any case, the urgency today is to decentralize power. Before we ask for a referendum on the euro currency, let's first decide together what are the town parking fines. Democratic maturity comes at this price.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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