In France, a University for Political Engagement
By Clara Grosset & Hélène Irving
Recent French elections saw a historic rate of abstention among voters, and research indicates growing distrust of French citizens for political institutions. L’Université du Citoyen, a grantee of the Open Society Initiative for Europe, has been running a project in Marseille and surrounding areas to increase awareness of democratic processes. We asked project manager Fabrice Amaudruz to tell us more about it.
Can you tell us about the local context in Marseille and what led you to create the project?
L’Université du Citoyen works closely with citizens, professionals, and public institutions to create space and opportunities for participatory citizenship. With rising abstention rates, issues of citizenship and democracy have formed an increasingly important part of our work over the past few years. Take the last municipal elections, for example, in which only 57.3 percent of voters turned out in Marseille, less than the national rate of 62 percent.
Increasing abstention calls into question the legitimacy of our representatives and their ability to respond to citizens’ needs and concerns. Unless addressed swiftly, this situation is a risk to our democracy. People abstain from voting for many reasons. For us, one reason is a lack of understanding of how political institutions work, the role they play, and how important they are in our daily lives.
Deeper knowledge and access to information are essential in allowing civic and political participation, so we teamed up with two other local organizations, Les yeux dans les jeux and Toulon @venir, to create an educational workshop for ages 16+ titled How Does Democracy Work?
How does the project work?
The project uses debate and role play to help participants learn and understand how democracy works at all levels.
The first thing we do is find out, through a group task, what participants know, or don’t know, about democracy and political processes. The aim is to help participants understand the basic workings of democracy, together with issues of citizenship, principles of the Republic, the Constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We then put all of this into practice through a mock election, in which each participant plays a role in the government or the parliament. After debating the process and outcome, we then reverse the situation with another role play.
How has the project been received by participants?
Every time we’ve played the game, we’ve received very positive feedback. Some participants said that “experiencing democracy and how it works has helped me understand it better,” and that the workshop had given “meaning to our citizenship and all of these complicated words.”
The workshops have highlighted the lack of tools and educational activities related to citizenship and the need for initiatives that increase understanding of democratic processes, as well as better links between people and political institutions.
What have you learned from the project?
Our experience shows that citizens are not insensitive or indifferent to these issues. The fun and participatory nature of the workshop is key to facilitating learning and motivating people, enabling us reach those who are often wary of engaging in discussions about politics. It also highlights the power of collective action and debate, and the desire to reflect on the things we have in common, at a time when society is becoming more individualistic.
What have you learned from local people about their experiences of democracy?
We’ve learned how important it is for citizens to experience being part of a collective society and to realize the important role each person has, especially through exercising his or her right to vote. Citizens should feel that they are able to speak up and participate—to make suggestions and choices—but to do this they must have a better understanding of the spaces in which they can act.