Democracy and civic spaces in France: The need for specificity and action


Inga Wachsmann and Peter Matjašič


Another article on shrinking space?

When working together in philanthropy, we tend to have an awareness of our role and purpose in society; particularly when democracies are under strain in Europe. This is not something new. The conclusions from our numerous conferences, seminars, reports and individual strategies unanimously state we should progress from discussions into action. They also conclude we should collaborate better, increase the number of foundations supporting the sector and, ideally, increase (flexible) funding in the sector.

So, what is the state of affairs in France?

Filling a knowledge gap as building block for collaboration
Different workshops and conversations held since 2016 in collaboration with Ariadne network showed: As it is the case for many Western European countries, a neutral (academic) overview, of the state of democracy in France was missing. Also, if philanthropy is aware of the challenges, this concerns only the results in the sector and foundations might not feel competent to act on the overarching issues. Around the COP21 in Paris and motivated by security issues, we witnessed, for example, both: restrictions to demonstration and precautionary arrests as well as the withholding of information from the press. Philanthropy supporting both the climate movement, as well as those defending freedom of speech and an independent press, realised what was happening without taking joint action. Another example, is the ethnic profiling and police violence that are recurrent for some people – such as migrants and the Yellow Vest demonstrators – and not for others. Are the links made between philanthropy supporting migrant rights and those defending a just transition? And what if we asked the French government to explain their action when large participatory processes like Le Grand débat and the Citizens convention on climate are ongoing? And would this be compatible with the French legislative framework of philanthropy? Here lies the motivations for Porticus and OSIFE to commission the report: Increasing engagement and collaboration among French and Francophone philanthropy around democratic governance and civic engagement, as well as strengthening collaboration with our partners in civil society – the actors who keep spaces of expression open or try to reopen them. This is how a team of academics around Hélène Balazard and Anaïk Purenne from the UNESCO chair Urban policies and citizenship at ENTPE Lyon worked out the report: ‘Citizenship, institutions, civil society – French democracy under strain’. A group of stakeholders advised and contributed to the work as well as a group of French funders to come up with an exhaustive overview. An additional objective is to nurture European conversations, hence the English version[1].

Giving you appetite to dive into the report
What we now have is a neutral statement, linking today’s developments (including Covid-19 impacts) to the country’s culture and history, and illustrating restrictions and (re)actions. We have precise wording that name ‘phenomena’ of ‘shrinking space’ making them concrete and visible – and this is in French. We have recommendations that can be reviewed and action points that philanthropy can work towards. Many of them in collaboration with other stakeholders like communities, movements, civil society, (mainly local) public actors, the corporate sector, etc.

What we expect from now on, is to increase the understanding of these phenomena in a large circle of philanthropy and encourage funders to get closer to communities and civil society and to allocate more (unrestricted) funding to support the essential role civil society organizations play in our democracies. This would contribute to (re)establishing just and inclusive societies where rights and freedoms are guaranteed and respected.

Driving factors and the role of philanthropy
Through the report, we discover how incidents and measures taken over the past 20 years led to today’s tensions in French democracy. A strengthened executive power, legitimate violence rooted in Republican and cohesion frameworks as well as security legislation, have led to restricting rights and freedoms, impacting civic action. Furthermore, political expression and management of conflicts, distrust in public institutions and emerging claims for more direct participation, question the efficiency of representative democracy. We have observed an increase of democratic spaces since the 1960’s that challenge legality and help create a strong liberal individualist interpretation of sovereignty and responsibilities. If democracy is evolving, we have to understand its evolution and stimulate a constructive public debate around it. Philanthropy can play a stronger and more coordinated role here.

Beyond understanding and discussing the current evolution, specific questions to address could be: what to do if volunteering is more diverse and temporary than reliable over time? On the other hand, how to reform the legal frame of ‘public interest’ if there is a high risk of losing its essence? Specific actions around e-voting, transparency and anti-corruption measures, independent oversight mechanisms, participatory lists or internal democracy within political parties could be further solutions when distrust and (almost) illegal methods reign to express dissent or solidarity, like demonstrating when officially forbidden, blockages, or helping undocumented people.

Societal and political exclusion is driven by inequalities, for example around socio-economic means and education. Philanthropy should address these inequalities, beyond considering all people as citizens, and seek to tackle discrimination against people from minorities so that their voices are heard too. By rethinking remuneration, developing and strengthening the power of acting of users, through citizenship education in public education schemes, through spaces where people can develop a feeling of belonging and legitimacy, by guaranteeing independent and pluralistic media, etc. Sounds familiar? Why are we hesitating? Organizing – of youths, those who are and/or feel excluded, trade unions, etc. – looks like a promising way to go. So does creating financial support locally with independent governance to address needs expressed and confirmed by local communities themselves.

To foster diversification of spaces of expression, we could support pilots and experiments; we could increase our trust in new movements and initiatives; guarantee and secure the operating environment and accompany the role of the digital space. The report lists various proposals and examples of how to engage citizens and communities and put them in the driving seat: Methods for participation, protection and respect of rights and the status of civil society stakeholders and decentralization. Not to mention the ongoing call for multi-annual core support instead of project funding.

Given these obvious tracks, what are we waiting for? Acting (together) could also help fortify our own role considering the growing scepticism towards philanthropy or critiques like those discussed by Robert Reich and others.

We hope to get more French foundations on board, as actors within their individual strategies as well as in conversations and collaboration among peers. Currently, these conversations happen within the Francophone Ariadne network and not in a more general funder collaborative.

Inga Wachsmann is Grant manager at Porticus

Peter Matjašič is Senior Program Officer at Open Society Initiative for Europe

The authors are writing in a personal capacity and the views expressed in this article are their own.


  1. ^ Available in end of September on the report’s website.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *