From Europe to the villages, a personal account
From the global to the local: democracy put to the test by climate change
Tackling the ecological transition puts our scale of thinking to the test. Everything must fit together or else this difficult equation will not be solved. Individual action and collective action, European citizens, businesses, farmers, associations, public entities… All must be looking in the same direction to find the meaning, and therefore the necessary impetus, to undertake the great, practical transition that lies before us.
The ecological transition is often presented as a technical and technological challenge. Without underestimating the importance of research and the conversion of the industrial and technical fabric, I am convinced that the challenge posed by the ecological transition lies above all in our capacity to put into action the overused expression “vivre ensemble” (“live together”) or, more precisely, “faire Cité ensemble” (“create a community together”) — an expression that better reflects the dimension of political and democratic transition. When, due to its monarchic history, French society tends to wait for the security of an overbearing State — in an increasingly uncertain context, and with the presidential election becoming the moment of acute crisis regarding this shortcoming between the Strength and Virtue of Man and the providential State — the reality of the transition which must be undertaken is more about cooperation and the advent of a civil society which is fully involved and active in taking our world’s history in hand.
And so, the political challenge of our century is to find the way to play this collective score by enabling each and every one of us to act, at all levels. This is a truly difficult challenge, especially at a time in our history when the individualistic and consumerist attitude seems to have reached its zenith and when the very notion of what it means to be a citizen is difficult to define. What does it mean to be a citizen today? This debate, which is so crucial for the survival of our democracies, deserves to be addressed on a national and, by the same token, European scale. The impermeable compartmentalization that our societies have built into the lives of individuals between work — which represents the only form of contribution to the community— and private life and leisure, often and increasingly leads to the fact that we no longer have any collective obligations when we return home from work. Those who are lucky will be able to live their lives entirely through meaningful work. But for everyone else?
Are we truly accomplished beings without political awareness and participation in the political process? Is this not a fundamental need identified by Aristotle, who saw in man a “political animal”? Identifying this shortcoming in the organization of time, life, and space in our societies helps to explain the deep malaise that individuals feel in an international and environmental context that requires rapid reaction. This malaise paves the way for a generalized resentment towards our social structure, a resentment that can have direct and harmful effects on the functioning of our democracies and our institutions, since there is so much hope in their capacity for political and social balance. The growing distrust of all forms of institutions, the increase in voter abstention, the rise of radicalism and of voting for extremists, these are all symptoms of a society in crisis of involvement.
We must therefore rediscover a taste for effort and involvement. This is not a bad thing, given that we feel the need to regain meaning in the lives we lead. It is as though we were suffering from a sort of schizophrenia: unhappy with this lack of meaning in our existence and suffering from not having any control over the course of history, and, at the same time, unconsciously refusing to finally play our part in the task, so much so that we may be filled with resentment towards a State that takes no action and an elite deemed to be responsible for this situation. What are we waiting for? We don’t really know.
If there is a need to affirm an ecological, political awareness on the European scale, this observation leads us to question the effectiveness of the major European policy and planning documents in promoting change. Political orientation on its own, even at the highest level, as necessary as it is, will not make it possible to meet the challenges of the transition before us. How then can we succeed in mobilizing Europe, its nations and its citizens?
Major participatory and public debate initiatives must be organized at the European and national levels in order to reunite the major political orientations and citizens. In France, we witnessed the experiment of the Citizens’ Climate Convention which, despite considerable criticism, nonetheless symbolically marked the recognition of the need to involve citizens in defining national policy. However, it is in actions, in doing, that the greatest number of people will be able to understand and find their unique place in this new world that we will invent together.
In France, we have a tendency to only consider intellectual effort — from the way in which our educational system is designed, to the value placed on professions, and even to the exercise of so-called participatory democracy. The forms of contribution offered by public authorities are those of meetings with varying degrees of involvement. Yet it is clear that not all of our fellow citizens identify with this type of exercise. They tend to involve a concerned and active minority, often with a high level of socio-cultural capital, who already have the opportunity to contribute at the local level. Even if some of these initiatives try to reach other groups by random selection, thus involving a number of ordinary individuals, they do not in any way address the need for cultural change, which is the only way to realize the ecological transition.
More than a participative democracy — which often sounds like a technical answer to the crisis of engagement and not like a political answer, and which allows us to develop nice toolboxes to patch up the system “around the edges” — I now prefer to advocate for (a position shared by a number of my elected colleagues in our rural communities) a “democracy of doing”, which offers to each person, with their differences and fragilities, the ability to be concretely involved in carrying out actions in the closest proximity to the territory where they live. The “democracy of doing” allows us to finally arrive at proposing this gamble of Life: to take into consideration people, all people, in the greatest universality, and what makes up their existence, their daily life, their reality. From the most global assessment that the understanding of climate change implies, and the necessity of coordinating all public policies, we necessarily arrive — following the initial assumption that we wish to preserve what must be considered as the hallmarks of our enlightened Europe, which is to make the ecological transition a tool for strengthening our democratic organizations — at reinforcing the citizen’s role in his or her most accessible, and therefore most local, area of life. In France, in particular, this involves the village.
The rural community — political space of the ecological transition
A careful examination of each territory, put under the microscope, already reveals interesting examples of transitions capable of creating a society. While the media spotlight is usually on urban areas and large regions, which are often presented as being at the cutting edge of innovation, what is actually happening in the way our fellow citizens live? Do they truly feel that they are part of a collective history?
We invite you to explore the universe of France’s rural communities, which have been much disparaged in recent decades in a political division that has made managerial optimization the guiding principle of our elected officials. Covering more than 80% of the country, rural areas possess strategic, common assets for tomorrow’s transition: mountains and glaciers, wetlands, coastline, forests, water resources, and agricultural land. If the notion of space is still overlooked in the French political system, it is obvious that the ecological transition cannot be achieved without the resources of rural areas. We are therefore faced with two options:
- that of a return to national control of “natural common assets” with a view to the general interest and health of the nation. This is difficult for the 21st century mentality where the individual is currently at the heart of considerations. Opposition will be very strong, and we risk wasting time
- or to trust in the political capacity of these rural territories and people.
This is the stance taken by the Association of Rural Mayors of France (AMRF). This association of elected officials, created in 1971, today brings together nearly 10,000 mayors in a network of solidarity, which is completely independent of political powers and parties. Its raison d’être is summarized in its ten commitments, among which are: “to defend the community and municipal freedom, a constitutional principle and the primary expression of democracy” and “to work for a balanced, fair, and concerted development of mainland and overseas territories, taking into account the specificities and assets of the rural world”. The AMRF maintains that rural communities of less than 3,500 inhabitants, far from being an organizational error, are in fact part of the “French genius”. The small size of the community allows a true republican and democratic culture to live at the village level and to make public policies both accessible and adaptable. The rural community makes it possible, in sparsely populated areas which are sometimes on the fringes of centralized planning, to bring to life accessibility of Institutions and politics in the space occupied by the town hall, which remains at the center of the village. Beyond the overarching and unsuitable policies, rural mayors represent the human scale of the Republic. Indeed, all citizens know their village mayor and recognize themselves in him or her, beyond labels. The elected officials of municipal councils often avoid descending into the partisan conflicts that often prevent the territory from moving forward. Here pragmatism dominates the methods of reaching compromises. Interconnected knowledge places individuals at the heart of local politics, which stands in contrast to the technostructure in place once you ascend the ranks of the Republic. The pursuit of conviviality, gatherings, the occasional heated exchange, it is people who are at the heart of the local scene.
When coming from an urban environment, discovering rural life is like discovering another world, one that offers a completely different political and social framework, and which is somewhat at odds with the centralized French state and its habitual conceptualization. It is the France of terroir and pragmatism, the France of action and common sense. This is the rural France that has so strongly shaped the national identity, but which has little influence on the political framework. It is the France of villages that I believe, I am certain of it, can help our country — and even beyond, Europe — in this quest for a successful response to climate change by restoring the hope of taking action, in simplicity and common sense, making room for everyone.
The AMRF has only recently become aware of the role it could play in driving the ecological transition. Its traditional areas of involvement were until now mostly focused on the daily reality of rural towns and villages: school, security, intercommunity relations, and routine management. Elected mayor of my village of Châtel-en-Trièves in March 2020, I was elected Vice-President of the Ecological Transition in September 2021, the day after the National Congress that celebrated the association’s 50th anniversary, after having led an afternoon of reflection on “Women, the Village, the Republic”. A dedicated working committee was created following this, initially bringing together highly involved mayors who had already made significant achievements. Our first objective is to understand what makes these stories specific to rural areas and to try to structure a role for the AMRF in its active contribution to the fundamental issue of ecological transition within an ecosystem teeming with actors.
Let us begin with the history of my village, the one I know best, Châtel-en-Trièves, to understand the driving forces behind community action in villages “à la française”.
The case of Châtel-en-Trièves, a French village of 500 inhabitants
Châtel-en-Trièves is a new village created in 2017 from the merging of two other villages: Saint-Sébastien and Cordéac. Located in the South Isère, right next to the Hautes-Alpes and Drôme departments, the village has, as of the 2019 census, 463 inhabitants. Châtel-en-Trièves suffered a wave of rural depopulation in the years between 1970-1980, resulting in a closure of the services available in the two former communities.
The closing of Saint-Sébastian’s school strongly marked the collective imagination. In 2016, when the neighboring town of Cordéac learned from the Éducation Nationale that its school would be closing in 2018, it was too much for the elected officials in place who made the decision to join forces to fight against the loss of services. The creation of the new village was accompanied by a founding charter, sealed in the walls of the new town hall, establishing the fight against depopulation, defending the very existence of the village and its local public services, as the political cement of the new community.
Thanks to the change in the boundaries of the school map, the school with its single class was saved in 2017. A policy of active citizenship is promoted in parallel so that everyone participates in order to sustain the life of the village which is presented as a common good and as a universe where the realm of possibilities and access to the right to exist together, are available to all. The inhabitants chose to give their new town the name of “Châtel-en-Trièves — Village of Possibilities”. Participative workshops were organized by the municipality to reclaim public spaces. The first was in Saint-Sébastien, on the Domaine de Talon — a 3-hectare estate with two heritage buildings that were initially abandoned — where the Town Hall was built. In this central location, which has become the town center, a cooperative café-grocery store, shared gardens, and a municipal equestrian facility managed by a local association have also been created. This newfound centrality in Saint-Sébastien, achieved through the strength of citizen involvement, has attracted a number of projects which have been welcomed into the heart of a vast, little-occupied local heritage: a physiotherapist’s office in 2019, followed by a puppet theater company in 2020, marking the opening of the Maison des Marionnettes de Châtel-en-Trièves, which is the seed of an interactive museum for young people dedicated to the art of puppetry, on the site of the former St. Sébastien Town Hall. And perhaps tomorrow in Chatel-en-Trièves, “the Village of Puppets” will be born?
Elected to head the new village in 2020, I launched a new mandate project that will promote the revitalization of Cordéac around a theme rich in social ties, shared interests and enjoyment, and the recognition of local know-how: “eating well together”. The geographical context of the area is particularly well suited for developing this promising approach. Trièves is an agricultural and livestock farming area which simultaneously distinguishes the local population’s sense of belonging and identity, and brings together the aspirations of the local population around the values of living well and ecology. Eating well together is among the values of this art of rural living that unites more than it divides, and is capable of supporting this inclusive transition policy, allowing all populations to see themselves in the perspective of desirable territorial development, in line with current challenges. The art of eating well together, which used to be shared in the public space at the tables of cafés and restaurants, has waned in Châtel-en-Trièves. Like other services, stores have closed and are concentrated in town centers and cities. However, villages remain attached to the activities provided by the cafés and inns which once existed there.
The idea is to hold on to what we have left in Cordéac — this single class saved — and to develop around the school a cafeteria open to all citizens from here and elsewhere. Covid opened our eyes to the deep loneliness that affects our residents who are losing their autonomy, when the absence of mobility solutions forces them to stay in their homes. We will pick them up in our school’s mini-bus to share a meal in our cafeteria. We will eat healthy local products, as well as prepared products that will allow our friends, the farmers, to make a better living from their work: Alain and Sophie’s goat cheese, Mathilde’s eggs, Florent’s potatoes and lamb, and beef from Jean-Pierre, Agnès and Hervé. The challenge is to forge links between men and women through the act of eating and to rebuild a vast network of social interdependence. This is one way of creating social cohesion in our village. The cafeteria will allow inhabitants to meet and participate in community life. It will be located on the ground floor of the old boys’ school in the center of Cordéac, and the upper floor will be arranged to accommodate residents who wish to work together. There will be a community center, recreational workshops, and a small library. Just as in St. Sébastian, the citizens will be in charge of creating their own civic space and building their village.
From fragmented experience to republican universalism: towards village rights?
While the global issues raised by the transitions at play seem to elude the ordinary citizen, thereby breeding skepticism and doubt in the ability of our republican political system to be up to the challenge of this historic moment, it is small towns, and in particular the small rural ones, which represent 82% of municipalities in France and 70% of the national territory, that can be the venue for a re-anchoring and a re-appropriation of politics. Here and now, it is in the close proximity of institutions and their capacity to make a place for each citizen that a new hope can be born.
If this challenge is presented to France because of our country’s specific nature in Europe, as previously mentioned, there is very likely a universality of these aspirations that unites each of the countries of the European Community, which is much greater than the nature of their political systems. That is what French villages, and particularly rural villages, stand for.
Rural areas have the strength of being made up of small rural communities (less than 3,500 inhabitants according to the INSEE definition) which have the exceptional advantage of allowing a territory, a community of actors, to converge with a shared political vision that is meaningful. A rural community can bring about real cultural change and mayors can be the conductors of this change. The municipality becomes the place where citizenship is awakened and the breeding ground for engagement.
I attempted to show that in Châtel-en-Trièves, food is a powerful tool for social cohesion, which resonates with all inhabitants of a community and reconnects them to their territory, to its richness, its fragility, and its resources. Through eating well together, we can experience a very accessible and inclusive way of reappropriating politics in the sense of sustainably creating a society together. Faced with the often anxiety-provoking complexity of prevailing discourse where technicalities have taken precedence over the sense of experiencing a common journey, the policy of eating well together in Châtel-en-Trièves whispers in our ears, unobtrusively, that solutions may be found in the simplicity and common sense of a bite to eat and shared enjoyment.
It is at the most local level that we, the mayors, can cultivate the soil of active citizenship, thereby enabling us to reconcile, create links, and renew the somewhat frayed threads between our populations and the Institution. Every public building, every piece of public space offers an opportunity for the citizen to reclaim public property. In this way, the citizen has the possibility and the right to make his or her own unique contribution to the life of the community. Being a citizen in Châtel can consist in designing and building the shelves of the cooperative café-grocery store, fetching products from our producers, participating in the group of horseback riders who maintain the town’s trails, planting squash in the shared garden, or even coming to help develop public policies in the open commissions alongside elected officials.
I see my role as mayor as encouraging everyone to join in the collective effort, in their own way. Each person can imagine and build his or her own area of contribution if it does not already exist. This is how they will be able to take on their role as citizens if this is not already the case. I believe that the access to citizenship is so fundamental for individuals because of the power of what I have personally experienced and which has awakened in me this flame of involvement, that it must be established as a new right, as well as a fundamental step in the perception that it will also be a first step towards the notion of duty, more specifically for understanding the requirement to play one’s part in the ecological transition’s challenges.
The right to the village could be defined as the right to be able to contribute and to put one’s mark on one’s local living space. It is the right, in the most immediate proximity, to be able to contribute to world history. This right to the village allows us to bring the individual closer to the world in which he exists, and to reconnect the citizen with the different scales of political intervention. The right to the village therefore establishes, in a spirit of subsidiarity, the village as the most suitable political space to play a part in the ecological transition. The right to the village would not only concern the French countryside, but could be established as a republican principle, along the same lines as equality or secularism. All citizens of France could claim the right to the village, even in cities.
In order for the right to the village to not just be that of Chatel-en-Trièves’ history, we have to strive for the city to be inspired by this art of bringing democracy to life in the heart of villages, to “make a village in the city”. Each piece of public space must become a realm of possibility, a space for democracy to breathe, a place of creativity, where each citizen can, if he or she wishes, make his or her mark. We must do away with dehumanizing asphalt and build cafés, gardens, playgrounds and small, safe, play areas where children can reinvent the world through their imagination, under the caring gaze of adults. We must re-establish local crafts, administration, and decentralized, “village” sized cultural venues, with an eye towards the citizen. We must regain a taste for regional planning to recreate a physical and meaningful link between citizens and the community. More nature in our cities is not enough. We want the city, just as much as the villages, to carry this profoundly humanistic vision of our political aspirations. We want a more human city, to find minimum services of proximity everywhere, places for social interaction, places for civic contribution, that continuously remind us of our citizenship and our involvement in global history.
One of the main functions of the municipality would therefore be to bring to life this right to the village for all the inhabitants of its territory. The mayor would become the facilitator of an active citizenship with a universal vocation, offering everyone the opportunity to work towards bringing our social pact to life and shaping the ecological transition. What an exciting and political vision of the mandate given to the first representative of our Republic! This will put an end to the erosion and disenchantment of elected officials who are essentially managers, and who all too often view their town’s politics in the same way as they view the management of a condominium association. We will learn to trust our services to manage day-to-day matters, and we will focus on our task as elected representatives of the Republic: to take care of the social body by implementing through actions, in the most concrete way possible, the functioning of democracy. We will work to empower each citizen in order to contribute to making him or her a fully integrated actor in our collective history, here and now, echoing the national, European and global narrative.
This is how we would declare an ambitious will to undertake, from below and involving all people, this cultural change that the ecological transition requires.
The European Green Deal, a new chance for Europe to uphold the values of liberal democracies
For the first time in human history, the acceleration of climate disruption has led to the realization that man’s actions on his environment have tragic consequences. And the only way we can hope to find a livable outcome is if we recognize the obvious need to work collectively. No single individual will be able to change this trend. Dismay will be followed by despair. However, citizens will feel invested with a great ability to act if their own actions reflect those of others. We must quickly learn to become resourceful leaders on a global, continental, and national scale to achieve the quantitative ambitions of our various planning documents, which have been developed with the help of climate science experts.
Yet, the international scene has begun a new act in the confrontation of two political visions, one between authoritarian powers and democratic regimes. This can be seen in the rise of political Islamism and the rise to power of new authoritarian figures all over the world, even in Europe. Recent conflicts in progress and those with power potential (Ukraine, Taiwan) place us in a new geopolitical universe.
For the past twenty years or so, Europe and the nations that make it up, including France, have been suffering from a clear existential crisis — which is not due to the climate crisis alone. This is a deep crisis that is leading to our geopolitical erasure and our alarming weakening in the face of authoritarian regimes. Almost everywhere, identity-based right-wing groups have been able to take advantage of this moment of crisis of meaning. Europe, the continent of liberal democracy, finds itself in a stranglehold in the face of increasingly powerful forces, constantly being challenged, pushed to its limits, and questioned regarding its fundamental values. Europe: Old continent? Old politics? What if we turned the tables? The question crosses our minds and is now strongly resonating with parties at the extremes, flirting dangerously with the temptation of populist tendencies.
Yet, as Jean Monnet proclaimed so well in 1945, Europe reveals itself in times of crisis. The Covid crisis, and especially the Ukrainian resistance to Russian imperialism, have revived a sense of European belonging around a strengthened foundation of values. On February 24, 2022, we all woke up with the feeling of being Europeans, surprised to finally feel this sense of belonging, after having shunned Europe. It is not unlike that terrible day of January 7, 2015 when, in France, we discovered that we were all “Charlie”. In both cases, it is the fundamental values of our model of civilization that have been attacked and that reveal our innermost selves. Far from the nonsense promoted by the right-wing identity movement, the France of Charlie and the Europe of Ukraine defend the values of democracy, freedom, and humanism.
Let us suppose that the climate and the war at our doorstep offer Europe the tremendous opportunity to reaffirm an extraordinary raison d’être by building its outstanding civilizational model, whose greatness is not based on violence and imperialism but on progress and conscience, in opposition to the authoritarian models that compete with it. The long-awaited and much desired ecological transition could be the catalyst for the emergence of a Europe of democracy, freedom, and humanism. This is a Europe capable of bearing a strong vision of the future of humanity in the face of authoritarian powers tempted to reduce the ecological transition to a dictatorial fraud.
The European Green Deal follows this grand idea of creating a political Europe in response to the climate crisis we are experiencing and making ours the first carbon neutral continent. But beyond the guidelines, objectives, and actions, the ambition of the European Green Deal, if it hopes to be worthy of history, may above all be a tremendous opportunity to give substance to European values: those of Charlie, those of Ukraine. This would be the moment to realize the necessary and imperative obligation to undertake the ecological transition, the moment to make democracy work better.
It would demonstrate to the whole world that, far from being an old and obsolete model, the democratic model that we defend is, on the contrary, the one that will allow us to orchestrate world change, by building a society that recognizes that everyone has a place within it, and without retreating from our values of freedom and humanism, and without denying what we are, deep down.
The European Green Deal, after giving a place to experts to formalize the objectives and guidelines, must now carefully observe the human organizations supported by the old democracies that make it up. It must observe and understand the fundamental link that unites it with the citizen. This is a universal value that resonates within each person at every moment of his or her existence, and which allows the individual to resonate with the collective. We must try to feel the pulse of what a community united in the universal may be. This goes beyond national borders. We need a telescope to observe what is around us and to take the time to enter the world of people. These people are “ourselves”, who still manage to be carried away by a victory at a sporting event, a World Cup, or the death of a popular singer. People who manage to love their communities, and who still are able to be a nation when its most deeply held values are trampled on.
We must rediscover the taste for observing human nature. “Look, with all your eyes, look“.
To cite the article
Fanny Lacroix, From Europe to the villages, a personal account, Jan 2023, 47.
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