Reflecting on a petition she signed recently, Constance Cossé asks how much impact an environmental petition can have on current policies. 

Last week, the petition L’Affaire du Siècle spread across social networks – at least for most people with a French friend among their network. Initiated by four NGOs (Fondation pour la nature et l’Homme, Greenpeace France, Notre Affaire à Tous and Oxfam France), l’Affaire du Siècle aims to take legal actions against the French state for its failure to act against global warming. As of today nearly 2 million people signed the petition, a record-breaking success. After seeing it shared by so many, it aroused my curiosity. As usual, I rapidly read through the little summary and it was only after I signed that I wondered seriously what impact I would have. Petitions make you feel part of a cause but do not really require any individual action. Can simply put your name on an online form actually change things?

Paris March for the Environment, October 2018 | Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet (Flickr); License: CC BY 2.0

How effective can a petition be?

Petitions are not new but online platforms recently democratised their use as they can reach an ever-growing audience. They create a mass that effectively raises awareness on societal issues. For instance, L’Affaire du Siècle created a buzz that livened up the ecological debate and, for a few days, placed environmental issues back at the heart of public discussions. 

Furthermore, this offers a new way for citizens to react, share and hold their government accountable. Petitions were created to make democracy more participative and deliberative. Petitioners feel like they have a real channel of communication with the government and the opportunity to push for initiatives that would not come from the state itself.

Beyond the communication aspects, petitions can have actual legal impacts. They help the government identify where public opinion stands, and provide credibility to pass on delicate laws. Furthermore, some countries establish a minimum signatures threshold above which petitions must be discussed by lawmakers. In Europe, the European’s Citizens Initiative allows citizens to call directly to the European Commission to examine an issue if 1 million signatures are reached. Although no concrete action is guaranteed, petitions bring specific issues into the political debate.

The other side of the coin

However, petitions can have negative consequences on the effectiveness of political reforms. Like any polemic, they put forth public discontent and thus challenge the government in place. In the case of ‘L’Affaire du Siècle’, it is all the more problematic. The French government currently faces one of the worst internal crises in years embodied by the ‘Yellow vests’ movement. The recent protests against rising fuel prices have profoundly weakened Emmanuel Macron. The government must now respond to street protesters who campaign for the demission of the president and for profound reforms of the social welfare system.

Some observers see L’Affaire du Siècle as a response to the lack of ecological considerations of the Yellow Vest movement. This creates an even more delicate context for the government to navigate in as it must react to the protests paralysing the country, while dealing with the request for immediate environmental reforms. Additional and contradictory popular challenges might further destabilise the government and interfere with the political reform agenda and its ability to act.

In addition, signatories often do not entirely think through what petitions entail for the government and for them. It’s quite easy to fill in a name but making the same efforts that are required from the government as an individual becomes more challenging. To stay under the threshold of 1,5°C global warming requires from the government to implement massive restrictions on daily consumption and habits. Those restrictions may go way beyond individual ecological initiatives and the comfort that people are ready to sacrifice. If not coupled with individual engagement and acceptance to rethink our lifestyle, laws to reduce carbon emissions will have no effect.

Such initiatives are thus a first step in the difficult process to engage political change. Political processes are messy and policy-making relies on many procedural conditions and power relationships. Petitions are one of the political tools that can drive change but require the right context and political support to effectively change public policy.

So what future for the French initiative?

A look at other countries indicates that a few initiatives have succeeded. In the Netherlands, the Urgenda campaign supported by 886 co-plaintiffs, from citizens to renowned scientists, successfully brought the Dutch government to court. The Hague Court of Appeal issued a legal order to accelerate greenhouse gases emission cuts to 25% by 2020. Similar initiatives in Pakistan and in Colombia successfully prosecuted the state to take further ecological actions. However, actual impacts have not yet been observed and detractors criticises such legal order for their lack of precision and enforceability.

For the French petition, the next step will be for Francois de Rugy, Minister of Ecology, to meet with the four NGOs in January to start up discussions. If they fail to find common ground, an official appeal will be filed before the Paris administrative tribunal in March. The challenge today is to find efficient and realistic measures that the government will implement rapidly. They must be clear enough and known by the public to make the government accountable.

Citizen engagement must go beyond a simple signature to truly have an impact on the future of the planet.

In the field of environment it’s all the more essential that not only government but also signatories take them seriously. Citizen engagement must go beyond a simple signature to truly have an impact on the future of the planet. Recycling, turning to a green energy provider and using clean transports are all actions that must be taken in parallel for citizens to be credible to prosecute a government. 

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    Constance Cosse is French and currently completing a Masters in Management at HEC in Paris. She graduated from a European Studies BA at UCL last year. Having lived in Berlin, London and Hong-Kong, she is now living in Paris.

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