A novel initiative in France and Switzerland

Editor’s note: The following is a partial paraphrase in English of an article* which appeared in French in Le Monde on December 19.

The citizen’s ballot or referendum initiative (référendum d’initiative citoyenne, or RIC) has become one of the principal revindications of the yellow vest (gilet jaune) movement in France. A well known feature in state government in the United States, for example in Massachusetts [or California], this instrument of popular participation has also featured in Switzerland since 1848. Historically the practice has been used for a wide variety of purposes: revoking legislation; recalling an elected official; amending constitutional law; and ratifying international treaties.

Since 1848 Swiss voters have been invited on 309 occasions to voice their opinion on 641 separate items. These votes fit into three main categories: constitutional amendments proposed by Parliament; constitutional amendments rising from popular initiatives requiring a petition signed by 100.000 citizens; and rescinding legislation, pending a petition signed by 50,000 citizens. The yellow vest movement has drawn inspiration from the fact that more than half of referenda in a given year worldwide take place in Switzerland, and by the fact that the idea of creating a popular primary assembly of eligible citizens was admitted in the French Constitution of 1793, it was never put into practice.

While Swiss voters, whose example has been evoked explicitly by yellow vest activists, do not vote to recall elected officials or to introduce new legislation, these items are central to the claims of French protesters. Moreover, as historian Antoine Chollet points out, the Swiss referenda are often produced by some “intermediary body,” and not the citizenry at large brought together by some spontaneous happenstance; typically a political party, a union, or a professional association will lead the effort in the Swiss case, whereas both types of organization are largely absent in the yellow vest movement.

While some 80% of citizen initiatives have failed, the practice has nonetheless become a central feature to democracy as practiced in Switzerland, and has led to a politics of concordance, as opposed to simple majoritarianism. According to Chollet, consensus and compromise will nearly always be sought in Swiss legislative politics.

The Swiss state thus combines representative and direct democracy in novel fashion. The practice of popular referenda as known in Switzerland has also served to produce a citizenry which is more competent general in items of governance: nearly 90% of eligible voters will take part in at least one referendum in a given four-year parliamentary session.

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