A pioneer of local participatory democracy, Jo Spiegel was invited by the departmental council at Temple-sur-Lot to give a conference on the theme “We have decided to decide together”.
“Power is born when people work together. It disappears when they disperse”. As with each of his interventions, Joe Spiegel quotes the political scientist – she is much more than that – Hannah Arendt. The audience drinks his words like whey. It is noon this Wednesday, November 23 at the base of Temple-sur-Lot. The pioneer of local participatory democracy has been preaching for more than an hour.
140 people attended this high-level conference on the theme “We have decided to decide together” (this is the title of one of his books). All ears, these actors of the Department were invited by the departmental council which, with Séverine Haller, departmental coordinator in social development, is the organizer of this event. Inaugurated by President Sophie Borderie, it began in the morning with various workshops.
“Democracy-construction”: it is doable
Since 2017, the Department has chosen to engage in a local social development approach and to put consultation, the development of participatory tools at the heart of its policies, such as the citizen advisory council, the right to citizens’ initiative or citizens’ participatory budget. It is in this context that the arrival of Jo Spiegel fits.
He testified to the feasibility of such an approach through projects and actions actually implemented. It evokes the stages, the tools and the places at the service of this collective construction of a democratic grammar which “has the ambition to reveal in each one his vocation as a citizen”.
Born November 24, 1951, Jo Spiegel was mayor of Kingersheim (Haut-Rhin), 13,400 inhabitants, from 1989 to 2020. This former professor of physical education and sports, now retired, invented and implemented place the House of Citizenship. In this modern amphitheater, a central place where the essential functions of democracy are exercised, he experimented with this tool of transformation in the interval between elections.
He is regularly asked in France and abroad to present his concept of “democracy-construction” but also to share the link between ecological transition, social justice and democratic transition. It offers a demanding, slow, interactive and uplifting approach. “Re-enchanting democracy means inscribing it in real life,” he says.
An evolution of the advisory board?
“How to prime the pump with those who want to? “, “how to reach people who have difficult ends of the month”, etc., the questions rocketed. Among the 140 guests, there was a group of citizens, recipients of the RSA (Active Solidarity Income), included in an equivalent system of co-construction of the Departmental Integration Program. They thought about how to improve integration. This intervention resonated with them.
The day before this conference by Jo Spiegel, a meeting of the advisory board was held, where the balance sheet for the year was drawn up. Disappointments and concrete proposals emerged. It now remains to be seen whether the role of the citizen advisory council will be strengthened or whether, in Lot-et-Garonne, there remains a report factory.
“There is no collective transformation without personal transformation and vice versa”
Jo Spiegel made the link between spirituality and democracy. He considers that there is no collective transformation without personal transformation. And vice versa.
What is the link between spirituality and participatory democracy?
In fact, it’s how to fertilize the democratic dimension and the spiritual dimension in the very broad sense of the term, it can be a secular spirituality. This questions our own interiority. It is something which is unthought, which is never said. How an elected official, even a person with responsibility, can try to grow, to always be in the human dimension.
We can also think that things are transformed by a personal transformation. There is no collective transformation without personal transformation and vice versa. We always forget this dimension.
This is not at all a moralizing speech. Faced with commodification, faced with the acceleration of time, there is the idea of asking about the meaning of commitment. The question is legitimate: am I in the ego or in the service? When people say “we’re fed up with politics”, they wonder about the motivations of the elected official: “Is he there for his glory or for the common good?
I personally believe that people are inhabited by the general interest but they have not understood that the general interest cannot be decreed. It co-produces. The whole meaning of construction democracy is to put people in a position to co-produce the general interest from complexity. And for that, you have to solicit the best of people to build the common. It may be a utopian approach, but I strongly believe in republican transcendence.
There are 140 people today. Is this enough to change the situation?
In any case, it gives legitimacy. It is another thing to make a decision or to build the decisive with 140 people than with 33 in the inter-self of the municipal councils. The dimension of sharing is essential.
Why speak of democratic slowness?
When I speak of democratic slowness, that means that we have to accept the idea that, in any decision, there is complexity. And all those who refuse complexity, who put simplism, are bankers of resentment, of “There’s only, we have to”. The acceptance of complexity is a driving force for a quality democracy. Dealing with complexity takes time.
But do we have time?
It must be included in the sequence from the start by telling the inhabitants: if we do not want to make fun of each other, we will take the time, 6 months, 12 months, but I can guarantee you that what we are going to produce together – elected officials, resident experts, collaborators – will be decisive for the decision of the elected officials. It is the notion of democratic impact, of democratic continuum between the agora and the ecclesia.
Your rhetoric is against the grain…
Completely. You have to have the courage to go against the current. This democracy of instinct, of the moment, of the selfie, the dictatorial culture of the immediate, brings us straight into the wall. There is no longer any reference, any common sense. We need to build commons. We have to agree on a story and it is in this sense that the democratic story must bring something new to a society which is questioning itself, which is afraid. I offer the antidote to simplism, demagoguery, populism, authoritarianism. It’s the idea of saying that each person, when they enter a shared journey, has something to contribute. It is an act of trust.
“The elected official is there to defend values”
Annie Messina, Vice-President of the Social Development, Medical Demography, Integration and Housing Commission, Laurence Lamy, Vice-President in charge of Citizenship and Christine Gonzato-Roques, Vice-President in charge of Social Development, Integration and housing, attended Jo Spiegel’s conference. We asked them the following question: what do you remember from this conference?
Annie Messina: “Participatory democracy is a process that must integrate the non-elected from the beginning to the evaluation. The second word is co-construction. We really have to build and get out of neighborhood meetings – they are still important – where the citizen is rather passive.
It must be integrated into participatory bodies. The elected official is there to defend values. It is not because we participate that we will have everything we want, it is within a specific framework. The frame is important.
Christine Gonzato-Roques: “It is an important paradigm shift in the way of conceiving of power and its exercise. Sharing knowledge and knowing is accepting to share power. The sense of commitment is individual but also collectively embodied.
We will arrive at an active democracy of construction when we, elected officials, are able to look at each citizen in the same way by saying that his expertise, his experience, his experience, has as much power and value as the expertise of someone another. It is a process of social transformation. And, as Jo Spiegel says, we have no choice. We must seize these tools.
Laurence Lamy: You have to take the time. With slow democracy, every decision must be a process. It is important to have this debate to instill change. We elected officials can no longer afford to represent the population with the level of participation that there is today. You have to ask the right questions”