Skip to main content

Q&A: Working Towards a More Representative and Participatory Democracy in France

A woman casting a ballot while others wait in line
A woman casts her ballot during the presidential elections in Saint-Denis, France, on April 24, 2022. © Pierre Crom/Getty

In June, French citizens will cast their ballots in the country’s legislative elections. Audrey Fortassin, director general of the nonprofit Tous Elus, tells us about her organization’s efforts to get people out to vote, the importance of diversity and renewal, and what they are doing to boost French democracy in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

You created Tous Elus in reaction to a record low in voter turnout in France, particularly among young people, during the 2017 legislative elections. What did you hope to achieve?

It’s true; there have been so many emerging citizen-led initiatives, with young people fighting for climate rights, feminism, and against racism. But 74 percent of young people did not vote for the legislative elections in 2017. We just couldn’t understand it: how could we make sense of the fact that young people are so politicized on the ground, while at the same time vehemently rejecting electoral politics?

Abstention from voting can be hard to understand. So a group of friends decided to meet young people, who were more or less politically active, to try to understand. These young people spoke of their lack of interest in politics, which was “not for them,” especially because they did not feel represented by decision makers.

Tous Elus was founded in 2018 in response to this reality, and decided to focus on two main issues—participation and representation.

How do you engage a population that is not interested, and encourage participation in the democratic process?

You have to sensitize, mobilize, and train citizens if you want them to feel concerned and involved in a country’s democratic process. These three pillars guide our work. We especially work with young people through citizenship awareness workshops, because the earlier we start, the more likely they are to keep up their political commitment. We also conduct trainings and provide political support, selecting people based on precise sociodemographic criteria that will help provide for a more diverse pool of candidates.

More pragmatically, an unregistered or incorrectly registered citizen will not be able to vote. In fact, misregistration turned out to be the main reason for the 2017 abstention rate among young people. We just finished a campaign, “Tous inscrits” (“All Registered”), which helped 2.5 million people correctly register to vote—we made a dent but it is still not enough. The fight goes on.

Why is representation an important pillar of democracy?

There are two schools of thought: one includes those who think that our representatives should represent us, and for that need to be like us; and the other includes those who believe that our elected officials just need to be well trained. We think both are important. But we do often hear that the French do not necessarily feel like voting for people who are not in tune with their experience. They feel it won’t change anything, whether they vote or not. There is a real lack of trust, which signals a representation problem, but also a deeper and more systemic issue.

Those who govern do so in the name of their constituencies, in all their diversity and complexity. So it is especially important for there to be a greater diversity of voices in institutions. A good democracy presents a multiplicity of points of view, exchanges, debates, a wealth of dialogue, which allows for better decision-making.

It makes no sense that in 2022 there aren’t, for instance, more women, more young people, more minorities, more workers among our elected representatives. Beyond that, renewal is fundamental to avoid the dead end in which we find ourselves with too many elected representatives who seem really disconnected from French citizens’ daily realities.

What do you propose to push for greater diversity and renewal of political institutions? 

So many groups were bubbling up when we started Tous Elus; they helped us figure out how to address these realities. Movements like Sunrise or the one that succeeded in bringing out political figures including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has become an international icon in terms of training, have shown us what is possible.

But the French context is specific. It is a country with a long history of the importance of following a dedicated path, and a certain elitism remains in political circles. Many people still today do not believe in their own legitimacy because they were brought up or work in a certain type of environment. It’s actually untrue—they are allowed to have atypical paths, and all they need is for someone to show them the way.

It is important that those who want to get involved in politics can do so, and that they know where to find those who can help them reach their goals. Political parties don’t really do it anymore, and in 2017–2018, there was no other structure that provided training for the general public. So we developed the “Pourquoi pas toi?” (“Why Not You?”) training program.

We want to shake things up, by providing trainings with unusual formats, and proposing different types of candidates to the French electorate. These are women, workers, young people who are qualified and just as legitimate as any established politician.

What hopes do you have for the future?

What motivates me the most is to see that what we do actually works! People who go through the training program are empowered, interested, passionate. As soon as we begin to open up the space for dialogue, young people ditch their apathy and instead happily engage in debate. Among the nearly 600 people whom we selected and trained, 50 submitted an application for the first time after just a year of reflection and training with us. 

Sometimes all it takes is a little help push through whatever issues are blocking people from coming forward. We do this by opening up spaces for discussion and supporting those who want to run but would never have dared to do so. This is how we push for a more diverse, more representative, and more vibrant democracy. The real pride will come from the election results, which we will see in a few months.

Tous Elus is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

Read more

Subscribe to updates about Open Society’s work around the world

By entering your email address and clicking “Submit,” you agree to receive updates from the Open Society Foundations about our work. To learn more about how we use and protect your personal data, please view our privacy policy.