Macron’s vaccine ‘citizen panel’ is doomed to fail

8 January 2021

2:15 AM

8 January 2021

2:15 AM

France has a problem when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine. Emmanuel Macron’s administration has so far only given out around 5,000 vaccines, and France has one of the lowest levels of trust in the coronavirus vaccine in the world, with only 40 per cent of the public saying they want to be inoculated. Faced with this trust deficit, Macron has proposed a 35-member ‘citizen panel’ to oversee France’s vaccination programme. The body, made up of a random selection of French citizens, will be responsible for monitoring and advising the government when it comes to the vaccine roll-out.

Vaccines are the perfect storm for distrust of public authorities. Each recipient must accept a foreign intrusion into their body, with possible side effects, without knowing if they will receive any personal benefit. They must trust the entire chain of custody for the vaccine, from research to production to syringe. Vaccines are a litmus test for belief: belief in science, in scientists, in a healthcare system and its administrators, and of course, belief in political leaders.

In a country so wary of vaccines, and with a leader who has so little credibility on the issue, the challenge is not so much one of logistics or medicine, but of authenticity: the French President must demonstrate that vaccination decisions are coming from the people, not ‘the elite’. Which is why Macron is so keen to use a ‘citizen’s panel’ to solve his vaccination problem.

The default response of the British government to avoid responsibility for unpopular policies and public scandals is a Royal Commission or judge-led public inquiry – Theresa May began a number of inquiries, which have cost £300m and not yet produced a single report. The French equivalent is to put the problem back to ‘the people’. So, when faced with the 2018 gilets jaunes revolt, Macron’s response was to appoint 150 ‘ordinary citizens’ by random selection and give them the task of implementing a 40 per cent reduction in carbon emissions without alienating the sans culottes. The thinking behind this was that a group of people who, to paraphrase Bill Clinton on his 1992 cabinet, ‘looked like France’, would be more trusted than the elite from the grandes écoles.

Needless to say the plan backfired. Those 150 citizens came with their own agendas and their resulting policies were hardly going to be approved by voters. Many of their recommendations were bossy, costly for the state and expensive for the poor. The Assembly’s members then leveraged the happenstance of their selection to become public figures in the climate debate, to the point that they are now, effectively, politicians. Indeed, the convention was itself political theatre (‘audience democracy’ in the words of French political theorist Bernard Manin). In the end many of their recommendations will never be implemented, giving Assembly members an endless source of grievance against the government.

Given this recent history it is hard to imagine that Macron’s citizen vaccination panel is anything other than a PR strategy – on par with agriculture minister John Selwyn Gummer publicly feeding his unfortunate daughter a beefburger during the BSE crisis. Why should French sceptics believe Macron’s 35 ‘ordinary citizens’ are in any way typical of the population? 35 is two orders of magnitude below any meaningful threshold for statistical significance, and (typically) only 3 to 4 per cent of those chosen to take part in randomly-selected assemblies accept the invitation.

These assemblies are, in effect, populated by volunteers, providing a strong bias towards activists and enthusiasts – as was the case with the Citizens Convention on Climate Change. Given the opaque nature of the appointment process, citizens might well conclude that Macron’s vaccination panel is composed primarily of people seeking to promote the government’s agenda.

While those of us studying ‘sortition’ (the political potential of random selection) and Citizens Assemblies are delighted that our arcane topic is benefiting from the oxygen of publicity, we are alarmed that it is being hijacked by elected leaders to ‘legitimise’ their own position in an era of increasing populism.

The emerging academic consensus is that Citizens Assemblies only work and have democratic accountability when they are made up of a large number of people, and select policies proposed by politicians with a democratic mandate. By design, the citizen jury lacks the expertise to formulate plans, it only exists to judge the plans of others. But this function is crucial. The central problem of modern politics is that everyone is talking, so no one is listening. The jury is there to listen. This closely follows the procedure of classical-era Athens, the birthplace of democracy. Above all, a citizen jury, or Assembly, must be the antidote to political theatre, a body to render a verdict, not engage in advocacy. Any other use of random selection is just pure politics.

International comparisons of effective responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have shown that strong political leadership is the critical factor in deciding how well a country fares. Macron, however, appears to be following the counsel of his revolutionary-era forebear Alexandre Ledru-Rollin: ‘There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.’

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