Guarding the Power? A research on the imperative mandate in France between Ancien régime and Revolution

Rome, June 6th

In recent years many scholars started reflecting on the crisis of democracy and representation. Indeed, everything suggests that the representative system is at a critical juncture: political instances of disintermediation are re-emerging, the traditional guarantees of parliamentarianism are questioned, collective distrust and resentment seem to characterize what Luigi Lacché effectively called a “constitutional melancholy”.

A critical reflection has accompanied actually the modern notion of representation since its origins. Rather then of crisis, we should perhaps talk today of “transition”.

At the time of the Atlantic revolutions, the distinction between democracy and the representative system was clear since representation corresponded to the government of the sanior pars. The notion of ‘direct democracy’ did not exist. Jacobins used at most the formula of démocratie absolue. Instead, revolutionaries were aware that democracy needed ‘reducing agents’ in order to develop.

The General States of 1789 marked a step forward, which determined the overcoming of the representative model of Ancien Régime. In those swinging times – between the desire for regeneration and the spirit of preservation of the legal system – the urgent claim for reforms emerged as well as a need to experiment with legal forms still unknown: first and foremost, a representation without an imperative mandate. It is worth remembering that elections in Europe under the Ancien Régime rested on a body of representatives of the communities – not of citizens with rights – with a defined mandate. In a different perspective, we may affirm that the bearer of the cahiers de doléances – which constituted the perimeter of the mandate – was secondary with respect to the complaints themselves.

It is questionable how binding the mandate was in practice. During the seminar discussion, Alvazzi highlighted the highly pragmatic character of the cahiers: they dealt with collapsed bridges, local crises etc. To be true, the complaints contained both limited indications and general questions relative to the political and judicial organization, ecclesiastical affairs, criminal and civil legislation, so much so as to herald a different paradigm. To be sure, the cahiers de doléances played a decisive role in the social politicization process.

The emblem of revolutionary reflection was certainly Sieyès, whose positions were extremely clear: he saw the necessity to expropriate the king of France of its organic representation in favor of the Third State. As for the mandate, it was evident to him that the representative government embodied the opposite of a democratic state and that the rejection of an imperative mandate was tantamount to the repudiation of people’s control over the elected. A speech of September 1789 reads like it follows:

“(..) la France n’est point, ne peut pas être une démocratie; elle ne doit pas devenir un Etat fédéral, composé d’une multitude de républiques, unies par un lien politique quelconque. La France est et doit être un seul tout, soumis dans toutes ses parties à une législation et à une administration communes. Puisqu’il est évident que 5 à 6 millions de citoyens actifs, répartis sur vingt-cinq mille lieues carrées, ne peuvent point s’assembler, il est certain qu’ils ne peuvent aspirer qu’à une législature par représentation. ”. 

The institution of the imperative mandate already had a new meaning.

Another author of the time, the Count of Antraigues, was more ambiguous. Having fled the country in time, he soon passed into the ranks of the Counter-Revolution. In 1789, he signed an essay in defense of the imperative mandate. He maintained that people should keep a control over the deputies. More precisely, he argued that in order to guarantee sovereignty – embodied in the King – it was necessary to keep Parliamentary members dependent on their “principals”.

These ideas were taken up by Jacobins. We may mention Hérault de Séchelles, a jacobin lawyer and a former President of the Parliament of Paris, who authored the draft montagnard constitution. Or Condorcet, author of an almost identical project.

For both Condorcet and Séchelles the instrument of control of the Members was to be found in the recourse to the primary assemblies on the basis of two fundamental ideas. First: powers had to be delegated as little as possible. Second: the legislative action had to be controlled by both the top and the bottom.

Jacobin fantasy would not win the thermidorians’ hegemony. An exemplary episode can help to clarify. In 1795 an obscure member of the Convention proposed to replace the real people – attending the debates as a sign of the legitimacy of the representatives – with a trompe l’oeil, a symbolic representation. In those same years, the involution of representation began: the ideal people were invested with sovereignty, the real people were relegated to an optical projection. Later in the XIX century, the use of the synecdoche – the “sober men” of John Adams – to represent the whole of society, became frequent. As it is natural, in the census framework of the single-class State, the representative problem did simply not exist.

Some participants at the session asked whether the revolutionary reflection dealt with the question of the “expertise” for the representative role. According to Fioravanti, the problem of “competences” emerged in the XIX century. It was then deeply contested that the representative should be required of further characteristic than his simple citizenship. During the revolutionary period, competence in no way constituted an element of legitimation. One can mention the jacobin Barrère, who proposed to subject his draft constitution to all French citizens – expert or not – so as to bring back the democratic circuit to the people.

It is not by chance that the institutions of the imperative mandate as of the revocation are challenged in phases of great transformation. The petition re-emerged during the Commune and was then taken up by the radicals of the Third Republic. In darker times, dictatorial regimes sublimated demands for reform into an undemocratic proposal. At the time of the “black parliamentarianism”, even Antonio Gramsci questioned how democratic the representation was, arriving to formulate the problem of democracy in terms of decision and responsibility. Far from any spontaneity, with the soviets and works councils in his mind, Gramsci maintained that the decision should ultimately hang on the side of the represented: the mediation of the requests would have been entrusted to the modern Prince, the Party, in his own way a democratic lung at the intersection of real needs and representation.

Today, responsibilities of elected representatives, grassroots control and the competence of the representative, return to the center of political discourse. The experience of the parties has been eclipsed. Thus the submerged seems to resurface, giving back the sense of a known echo. 

Cited books

MANIN, Bernard. Principi del governo rappresentativo. Il mulino, 2010

ROSANVALLON, Pierre. La contro-democrazia. La democrazia nell’era della diffidenza. Ricerche di storia politica, 2006, 9.3: 289-302

LASKI, Harold J. Democracy in Crisis (Works of Harold J. Laski). Routledge, 2014