"Sego in the land of the Soviets"

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THOMAS COEX / POOL / AP

Segolene Royal is a candidate for France's Socialist Party's presidential nomination.

Where does representative democracy end and populism begin? The question has been posed high and low in France for the last couple of days since Ségolène Royal, the clear frontrunner to be the Socialist candidate in next spring's presidential election, proposed tossing a new wrench in the already dysfunctional French mode of governance. Her idea is to establish "citizens' juries," drawn by random lot, to assess the work of representatives between elections. Such "popular surveillance" of deputies and other elected officials, she said, would help bridge France's chronic gulf between the elected and the electorate.

For a country that considers itself the cradle of representative democracy, it was a bold departure. And like many of the proposals Royal has advanced in the year since she threw her hat in the presidential ring, this one surprised even her staff, left pundits and pols sputtering with outrage, but apparently found favor with the French people.

The conservative daily Le Figaro headlined its editorial on the matter "Ségo in the land of the Soviets," claiming such juries were of a piece with her other unrealistic proposals like making union membership mandatory and "scaring the capitalists" by regulating the free flow of international capital. Brice Hortefeux, a prime lieutenant of the probable conservative presidential candidate, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, called her idea "an attack on the Republic." In fact, as Royal's staff noted in a quickly disseminated clarification, such popular juries are nothing new; Royal first voiced the idea back in 2002, and well before that it emerged from "Anglo-Saxon theories of empowerment." For years, such selective citizens' committees have been used in Berlin to steer municipal policies where citizens thought they ought to go, and in Scandinavia to get a handle on controversial issues like genetically modified foods.

Still, the idea seemed to jeopardize the apparently impregnable lead Royal maintains over her Socialist rivals, former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn and former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius. They both gleefully attacked the juries this week in the second of four televised debates scheduled before Socialists select their candidate in mid-November. Strauss-Kahn noted that a just society can't be "built on the general suspicion" invoked by subjecting elected officials to juries. Fabius suggested the idea was "a kind of populism that would end up serving the far right."

Yet in the process they managed only to drive home the fact that Royal is setting the agenda for the Socialist race, to the consternation of her more experienced and older rivals. The jury concept fits neatly into her broad emphasis on"participative democracy" and "citizen experts." Few political experts beyond Royal know exactly how those ideas are supposed to be applied, and she's been deliberately vague on the details. But what do they know? As so often in the past, the polls came to her rescue. One commissioned by the daily Le Parisien after the debate found that 59% of a representative set of French voters liked the idea of citizen juries, while 34% didn't. Royal is not budging on her overall theme that the French polity is seriously ill and needs a transfusion of people power. She sees her country being "pulled down by a depressive spiral" and believes that "whole sections of French society feel excluded by the public debate."

A little dose of populism might help light a fire under a political class that engenders more disdain than respect among the French. But experience has shown that people anywhere can be just as boneheaded as their politicians, and that pandering to them doesn't necessarily improve matters. One year ago the death of two teenagers in a poor suburb of Paris set off 12 days of riots in destitute and disenchanted banlieues throughout France. As clashes with police multiply in the run-up to that anniversary, France is nervously eyeing the high unemployment and sense of exclusion that persist among the young descendants of France's post-war immigration.

The prospect of citizen's juries may not do the trick of pulling them into the fold any more than another promise Royal cavalierly tossed out in the debate: that she would let the public attend the Council of Ministers, the formal meetings of the president with all his or her ministers. They only happen once a week, and they're pretty boring. Maybe a better way to help everyone participate in French society would be to get them jobs.