The Saillans Spring​ began in 2011 when residents heard that their mayor had proposed to a supermarket chain that it open a branch on the outskirts of the village, in the Drôme department in south-east France. A protest ensued. ‘Some of us came dressed as food cans and brought shopping trolleys,’ I was told by Joachim Hirschler, when I visited Saillans recently. Hirschler is an energy consultant who joined the community action group set up to fight the intruder. Plans for the supermarket stalled; the movement for change didn’t. ‘It started us thinking about what it meant to be an active citizen,’ said Fernand Karagiannis, now a local councillor. They were dissatisfied: the local elite exercised power, while the majority of the village’s 1200 residents had barely any say in how their commune was run.

Karagiannis and the other members of the community action group decided to field a list of candidates at the next local election. None of those involved was affiliated to a political party. ‘We had lots of women on the list, which is unusual,’ Hirschler said. Their slogan was ‘Another way for Saillans – all together’. It was an alternative, not only to the centrist mayor, François Pegon, but also to the system. ‘We did something slightly different,’ Karagiannis said. ‘We had no manifesto, and we did everything in public.’ As with the gilets jaunes movement, there were no obvious leaders.

The election, in March 2014, wasn’t fought over policies, but over the means by which future political decisions might be reached. On a turnout of 80 per cent, 57 per cent of votes in the first round were cast for the insurgents. Journalists and television crews piled in to watch Saillans become the first commune in France to be run as a participatory democracy: henceforth, municipal decisions would be taken on the basis of public consultations, questionnaires and referendums. The municipal website reads: ‘Our journey proceeds by learning and experimentation day by day. We allow ourselves to try things out and get them wrong, to start again, but with transparency and trust between officials and residents.’ Five years on, the press and the TV crews are back: does Saillans show how the gilets jaunes’ demands for direct democracy might be put into practice? As Pierre Bafoil wrote in Le Journal du Dimanche on 1 January, ‘The gilets jaunes dream about it. Saillans did it.’

Since their election, Saillans’s 15 councillors have tried to encourage transparency. Instead of delegating responsibility hierarchically, they work in pairs on different projects and report to each other, sharing a single email inbox. Their bimonthly meetings are open to the public. Policies are developed by committees made up of between twenty and sixty citizens, and overseen by a pair of councillors and a facilitator. Task forces called ‘groupes action-projet’ manage the implementation of new policies. Twelve randomly selected volunteers, of whom at least six are unaffiliated to the group, oversee the process. Minutes from the last five years’ meetings are available online. Since 2014, Karagiannis estimates that the council has received at least six hundred requests for information, the majority from other communes and collectives. Municipal elections are due next year. In the French press there are murmurs that lists of participative candidates will be fielded elsewhere, perhaps in Brest, a city of 140,000 people.

And yet, for all their symbolic status, what is truly remarkable is how little power French local authorities have. In Saillans, the council has no jurisdiction over the local train station, whose closure is threatened. It has no control over refuse collection, and the number of collection points has recently been reduced. In a few years, Karagiannis thinks, they will no longer have a say on the water supply. In other words, the new participatory regime’s achievements are limited: they have made changes to school timetables; revised water tariffs; provided new benches and signposts; and decided to turn the street lights off at night (someone thought they confused bats). I spent my last few days in Saillans staying with Françoise, a teacher. She is part of the mobility task force and responsible for cycle stands. Her seven-year-old daughter is also politically active: she voted on new equipment for the playground, plumping for trapeze rings.

Some in Saillans think the council is going round in circles. ‘How many steering wheels does a car have?’ asked Jean-Marc, who owns the local garage. ‘They spent hours discussing the colour of the flowerpots,’ Laurent, the owner of the sports bar, told me: ‘People wanted grey. One guy in the village persuaded them all to go for red.’ He paused. Pétanque was being played on the television. The other patrons waited for a punchline they’d heard before. ‘He died a week after the pots arrived.’ Laurent then slid across the counter a folder containing accounts of failings in local government procedure.

Support for the gilets jaunes is widespread locally. In Saillans, most drivers display yellow vests in their cars. I hitchhiked between Saillans and the nearby town of Crest; local buses are sporadic. My lift had three vests: one on the dashboard, one by the rear window and one in the boot. Many people told me they supported an increase in the minimum wage, the restoration of the wealth tax, and a reduction in MPs’ salaries and privileges. In December, mayors in over ten thousand rural communes put cahiers de doléances in town hall reception areas so that citizens could list their grievances. In Saillans, there were only two entries. In Crest the cahier was half full. A few entries denounced the gilets jaunes and one offered support to Macron, but most echoed the gilets jaunes’ demands. About a fifth of them asked for a Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC), which would allow citizens to suggest, modify and abolish laws without the need for elected officials (it could also allow for the dismissal of officials). Macron must long for the days when all the gilets jaunes wanted was cheaper petrol.

Hervé Mariton, the Républicain mayor of Crest, is critical of the Saillans experiment, but sees the widening gap between local and national government as a crucial factor in the recent unrest. Last year, a law was passed stopping public servants from holding multiple offices. Mariton, who decided to leave parliament and remain as mayor, thinks that those who formulate national laws – the large majority of whom are part of the Macron coalition – are no longer aware of what’s happening locally. ‘They don’t understand the feelings of their constituents or the citizens … they understand their mission to be carrying out Emmanuel Macron’s platform.’

In 2007, Ségolène Royal, the Parti Socialiste candidate in that year’s presidential election, proposed letting citizen juries pass verdicts on whether public policies worked, though without giving them the power of veto. The idea was not well received. Yet, since November, Macron has felt compelled to make his own case for a form of ‘deliberative democracy’: the grand débat has involved more than a million citizens. If Macron fails to respond to its findings, protests could intensify. Many gilets jaunes disliked the idea from the start.

Should Saillans get behind the RIC? When I asked him, Karagiannis wasn’t so sure. He talked about helping local people participate in the hard work of governance, of encouraging them to compromise. ‘The process is just as important as the programme,’ he said. ‘It’s not guaranteed to transform the political system.’ Then he smiled at me: ‘I don’t like referendums. They tend to divide.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences