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Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality: A Model for France?

Camille Barbe (University of Bordeaux / DCU Brexit Institute)

On March 1st 2023, and a week ahead of International women’s day, the European Commission representation in Ireland hosted an event titled “Rocking the system since 1973: The EU and Ireland working together for Gender Equality”. During her intervention, Chair of the Irish citizens’ assembly on gender equality, Dr Catherine Day, highlighted how assemblies had been significant actors regarding progress on social issues. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O’Gorman TD also pointed out how useful they can be to “kickstart” debates which the political process might not be ready for.

Citizens’ assemblies are deliberative bodies that are set up to debate important public policy questions and propose changes in the law for elected representatives to consider. Relying on the principle of direct democracy, these assemblies are composed of ordinary citizens chosen at random. The designated citizens are given time to reflect, discuss and hear from a diverse range of actors working on the issue they have been assigned. Citizens’ assemblies are particularly useful for considering difficult public policy questions. Just like opinion polls, they offer insight into what the general public is thinking. However, unlike polls which are immediate, assemblies offer time for citizens to fully grasp the stakes of the debate and thus they are more equipped to express nuances when presenting their views. Once the discussion is over, citizens of the assembly produce recommendations which are transmitted to the executive or Parliaments. The assembly is merely consultative, so officials are not bound to implement the measures favoured by the citizens. However, they often lead to referenda or to the adoption of some measures following the recommendations made. In Ireland, previous citizens’ assemblies have led the way for referenda which legalised same-sex marriage (2015) and liberalised abortion (2018).

The Irish citizens’ assembly on gender equality was established in 2020. The assembly was composed of 100 people, 99 Irish citizens along with the chair and former Secretary General of the European Commission, Catherine Day. The citizens were asked to tackle a range of topics related to gender equality and specifically, “to prioritise the proposals, which may include policy, legislative or constitutional change, having regard to the legal requirements and the costs versus the potential impact.” The assembly’s final report was published in June 2021. The recommendations included the inscription of an explicit reference to gender equality in the Constitution as well as the modification of the “women in the home” clause in article 41. As a result, a referendum on the matter could be expected in the upcoming years. For now, the government has promised to respond to the report made by the Joint Committee on Gender Equality addressing the recommendations made by the Citizen’s Assembly during the year. In recent years, citizens’ assemblies have become more common across Europe. They have been used in the Netherlands, Portugal, Iceland and France among others. However, Ireland alone has implemented an assembly focused solely on gender equality. This piece argues that a similar assembly would be beneficial to France as it would put the issue back on the agenda, offer time to reflect on potential constitutional and legislative change and more generally, provide a unique opportunity for progress towards gender equality.

At first, it may seem strange to propose the export of the Irish practice to France, due to the differences regarding the legal background of each country on gender equality. While Ireland is currently discussing a constitutional reform on the matter, France’s constitution included a reference to gender equality when it was promulgated in 1958. In addition, a 1999 revision enshrined the possibility for laws to promote gender-balanced representation. However, twenty years on, the results are disappointing. While progress has been made at the local level, the Assemblée nationale (France’s lower parliament chamber) is still 62% male, making it 35th out of 186 worldwide national parliaments. In fact, Ireland stands much lower at rank 101st with a lower chamber which remains 76% male.

When entering office back in 2017, current French President Emmanuel Macron made gender equality “the great cause” of his term. This commitment led to the adoption of 4 laws dedicated to protecting victims of gender-based violence, as well as the creation of non-consent threshold age  and the criminalisation of street harassment. Despite these advances, feminist associations considered the actions taken to be of little ambition and critically underfunded. In their words, the great cause has only led to little result.

The search for gender equality in France seems to suffer mainly from two obstacles:  lack of accountability from politicians and indifference from the general public. Two things with which a citizens’ assembly could significantly help with.

First, it would bring awareness to the state of issues regarding gender equality, which is needed. When recounting the Irish experience of the citizen’s assembly, expressed that most citizens were surprised to see how low Ireland stood in most indexes on gender equality compared to its image of a “progressive country.” Similar reactions could be expected from French citizens.

Second, an assembly would be an opportunity to review the current constitutional disposition on equal representation and perhaps change its incentive formula into a positive obligation.  Such a constraint would certainly motivate legislators to act more decisively when drafting measures on equal representation.

Beyond the constitutional issue, an assembly could also promote accountability. Though they are merely consultative, citizens’ assemblies do benefit from the “power of persuasion” as Day puts it. As a result, recommendations made by citizens may be more likely to lead to the adoption of effective measures.

If Ireland appears as a trailblazer in recent times when it comes to using the citizen’s assembly, France is no stranger to them, having established two in recent years. The Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat (Citizens’ Climate Convention) of 2020 and more recently, the Convention Citoyenne sur la fin de vie (Citizens’ Convention on the End of Life) . Both assemblies were expected to mark the beginning of a new era for French democracy, one where citizens were to be more included in the process of democratic deliberation, or so it seemed. Out of the 146 propositions made by the citizens, only  12% were adopted exactly as they were written by citizens while 53% were adopted after modifications.

Last Wednesday, Minister O’Gorman (who is currently on leave from his position as law lecturer at DCU) promised that the Irish government would respond to the report on the recommendations of the citizen’s assembly in the upcoming year in a “structural way and in a meaningful way.” Though citizens’ assemblies on gender equality can account for progress throughout both French and Irish societies, ultimately it is up to legislators to decide whether their “power of persuasion” should be translated into legal action.

Camille Barbe is a candidate for a master’s degree in Comparative Public Law at the University of Bordeaux. She is studying gender representation in the French and Irish parliaments and is currently an intern at the DCU Brexit Institute.

Image credits : Freepik 

The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.