In 2022, the French elected the President of the Republic and then the deputies of the National Assembly. In the last presidential and legislative elections, the abstention rate increased. However, the French are preoccupied about the future of their society: proof of this are the demonstrations and the important social movements of the last few years. Pressenza interviewed Sabine Rubin, France Insoumise MP for the 9th constituency of Seine-Saint-Denis, between 2017 and 2022, about her experience as an elected representative, her perception of the state of democracy in France and ways to improve its functioning. Sabine Rubin has decided not to stand for re-election.
1- Under what conditions did you decide to stand in the 2017 legislative elections?
Before this first question, I must make an important clarification: I did not “decide” to stand for election. As a long-standing humanist militant, I simply enthusiastically supported the programme l’Avenir en commun (The future in common) presented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the 2017 presidential elections; in doing so, and after a series of circumstances not without misunderstandings, I was designated by local militants to be part of the pair of candidates for the legislative elections; after being officially invested as a “candidate” by France Insoumise’s decision-making bodies, even though I had let them know that I only wanted to be an alternate; finally, I was elected as a France Insoumise MP for the 9th Seine-Saint-Denis constituency.
This is a fundamental point, because “deciding” to stand as an MP is a personal project, an “I want to”, which was not the case for me, unlike most people who fight to be candidates. And I have to say right away why: I have – like many others before me – a rather critical view of the representative system. Moreover, during this mandate, I did not think that I would represent anyone, but rather that I had a mandate to defend a programme.
2- You were elected in June 2017 for the first time. What surprised you the most when you started your work as a parliamentarian?
Before being surprised by the parliamentary work itself, I was surprised by the notoriety given to the role. Becoming “Madam MP” suddenly gave me a certain status, a respectability that I did not expect. During my first steps in the National Assembly, I remember being puzzled by the almost old-fashioned regard that the staff of this “noble” institution had for MPs. I thought: “If our citizens were welcomed with the same attention in the different social or public services of our country, it would be a great progress”. That said, over and above the honours of the office from which one benefits personally, the function sometimes makes it possible to resolve situations of fellow citizens when common law is lacking. And since it is often lacking, this “small power” is not negligible.
As for the parliamentary work itself, it is both the interest of the subjects dealt with, the great richness and diversity of the tasks and at the same time the void of all this work that has left its mark on me.
Indeed, it is very interesting to have to analyse government bills, to amend them by presenting arguments, to prepare speeches; it is fascinating to listen to different actors, whether to carry out information missions or to draft bills; it is rich in lessons to help citizens or to support struggles; everything is fascinating or could be.
I use the conditional tense, because all this work leaves me with a sense of void; and this is no real surprise. This experience confirms rather the formal character of democratic debate in our institutions, especially in this Fifth Republic, and more particularly under this mandate. The assembly (Godillot’s assembly, by the way) has been reduced to a mere recording chamber for the government’s wishes. Moreover, (or because of it), the debates were (and still are, to hear those of this new mandate tell it) often reduced to monologues; opposition amendments are barely discussed, dismissed with a laconic “rejected” by the ministers of the bench. Sometimes they take the trouble to assert authoritative arguments, contradicted by facts, figures or reasoning, but this does not give rise to any debate, except inventive ones. The hemicycle is the place par excellence for the nove-langue, for the most skilful, for sophistry, and for the most skilful, for sophistry. And for me it is unbearable.
So yes, we debate, but in a void, and it has no effect.
That said, if it has not been heard and considered in the Chamber, the word of the oppositions, in particular that of the Insumisos, has found an echo outside the walls of the Assembly via the social networks. And this is not insignificant for the advancement of a particular political thought, not to mention the satisfaction one feels at being able to clearly express one’s ideas and points of view.
3- A member of the National Assembly must propose, debate and vote on bills. What was your daily work as a Member of Parliament? What tasks did you spend most of your time on?
I have just mentioned the diversity of the MP’s missions and tasks. But not all of them can be carried out with the same degree of commitment. It depends on how well they know how the Assembly works; on whether they are in a majority group or in opposition; on the size of the group; on whether they are elected by the Paris region; on the committee they belong to and on their own interests.
As a first-time MEP from the Paris region, as a member of a small (17) opposition group and as Finance Commissioner, I spent half my time in the Chamber or in committee, mostly looking at finance legislation.
The other half was devoted to work in the constituencies, meeting with citizens, local institutions or supporting struggles and mobilisations, which were particularly numerous during this five-year period. I was also very involved in education (hearings, meetings, debates, etc.).
It should be added that the tasks of an MEP would be impossible to carry out without the work of the support staff: from deciphering bills to drafting amendments and speeches; from organising and monitoring hearings to drafting bills; from legislative control to monitoring political news, social mobilisation and communication work, these are the backbone of the MEP’s work.
4- Ordinary citizens often have the impression that politicians are far removed from their concerns. Even if they can meet their MP in his or her office, the latter seems to live in another world. How did he or she keep in touch with the inhabitants of his or her constituency?
The man in the street has a point. It is incomprehensible that a President of the Republic does not know how much a bar of chocolate costs, as was the case with Mr Sarkozy; it is unacceptable that a Minister of Economy and Finance like Bruno Lemaire regrets having lowered the APL (Aide personnalisée au logement) and followed the comments of his hairdresser, instead of taking into account the warnings of the opposition in the Chamber.
But not all politicians, however well placed, are disconnected from the reality of ordinary people. Members of parliament, in particular, are regularly in contact with their fellow citizens, as I was myself, when I was questioned about individual housing problems, papers or rights that were inaccessible due to the lack of structure of public action; or by groups of inhabitants, professionals (teachers, nurses, tradesmen, etc.) who deal with the difficulties of their profession. Most politicians are thus aware of citizens’ preoccupations, even if they are unable – on an individual level – to provide solutions, especially when they are in opposition.
The problem is not so much the “politician” as the “politicians” who have been in power for 40 years and who, for the last 15 years, have shamelessly defended the interests of the CAC 40 and finance, indifferent (insensitive?) to the consequences of their policies on the well-being of the majority of citizens.
During meetings with my fellow citizens, I did not hesitate to explain to them the link between “their preoccupations” and the political decisions of these minions of the CAC 40. I added that in order not to have to complain about politicians, it would be better for them to take charge of public affairs themselves, not only to provide solutions to their preoccupations, but also to think of the good of all.
5- The world of politics has a reputation for being a tough world in which all kinds of trickery, and above all lowliness, are allowed. What is your relationship with your fellow MPs?
In our competitive world, low blows are everywhere, as some seek to beat others. In this sense, the world of politics is probably no different from the world of business or show business.
In politics, it is about winning an election, about seizing “power”; and in this game, all dirty tricks are allowed: humiliations or personal inventions instead of substantive debates, as we have seen again during the last elections. At the individual level, it is all about occupying an important position in the “party”, getting closer to the centre of power or gaining the leader’s esteem.
I have kept away from the media and therefore from the dirty tricks that characterise them; I have also kept away from court games, maintaining cordial relations with all my colleagues.
6- With the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, the French Parliament plays a less important role than with previous constitutions. Does the Parliament really have power? If so, what are its limits?
I have already mentioned how the Parliament, especially during the legislature in which I took part, has been reduced to being no more than the Government’s register chamber. This is made possible both by the Constitution of our Fifth Republic, which confers great political legitimacy on the President, elected by direct universal suffrage, and by the proximity of the legislative elections (only one month after the presidential elections), which generally reinforces the election of a parliamentary majority belonging to that of the President, who thus endorses the action of the government he has appointed.
So, yes, our Constitution favours presidential rule. It even allows for the omnipotence of the president, especially if he seeks self-esteem in office as Mr Macron does; and especially if the parliamentary majority of this president – composed moreover of political novices, as was the case during my mandate – is totally submissive to him. The very theoretical principle of the separation of powers, on which democracies should be based, no longer even attempts to be an illusion.
However, our Constitution does not prevent Parliament from having an important role. It can even have a decisive role, as it may or may not approve the action of the government, the second head of the executive, which it can overthrow. This was J.L. Mélenchon’s intention for these last legislative elections. Moreover, if no absolute majority emerges from the ballot box, the Assembly can become the real forum for debate that it should be, forcing the executive to confront it.
That said, the legislative branch remains under the control of the executive, which initiates most of the laws debated and co-decides with the Assemblies on their agenda. The government also has several procedures at its disposal to speed up legislative debate (fast-track procedure), or even to prevent it (Article 49.3 of the Constitution); it can request a “blocked vote” in which only amendments accepted or proposed by it are debated; or it can demand a second deliberation on an amendment that has unfortunately been passed against its wishes. In all these ways, Parliament’s power is limited.
7- How do you, as a citizen, assess your experience as a parliamentarian?
I will be brief. It has been a very rich personal experience in terms of learning and encounters. However, this experience reinforces for me the urgency of putting an end to the formal democracy that is played out in dusty and outdated institutions, in particular those of the Fifth Republic. It also confirms my conviction that we must put an end to representative democracy, which is also undermined at every election.
8- Representative democracy is currently under a great deal of criticism. In your opinion, how could it be improved?
Representative democracy has been criticised for as long as there has been talk of democracy. Referring to the etymology of the word, some have said – and continue to say – that the representative system cannot be democracy. In any case, the shortcomings and limitations of this form of democracy became clear in the 2005 referendum, and then in Hollande’s unfulfilled promises against finance. Betrayal by elected officials, false promises, conflicts of interest, corruption and the weight of business, professionalisation of political life: the grievances against this system are numerous, and partly explain the distrust of elected officials and the growing abstention rate. Added to this is the excessive “peopolisation” of politics, fostered by the media and networks, so that representatives represent less than they are in perpetual representation.
Of course, not all politicians engage in these abuses. But the bad behaviour of some taints the entire political sphere, and in the end, this is a good thing. Because if being a citizen is simply about casting a vote, that’s a shame for democracy.
So of course, we can improve “representative democracy”. This is one of the flagship projects of the France Insoumise programme: a constituent for a Sixth Republic which – in addition to giving more weight to Parliament – would try to give more space to the voice of the citizen (RIC citizens’ initiative referendum, recall of elected officials, term limits, etc.). These are advances, certainly; but they do not re-examine the foundations of the representative system. And in my opinion, this is what we should do: do away with professional representatives, or even representatives altogether.
In this sense, I find the experience of the Citizens’ Climate Convention very interesting. Because beyond the communication coup it was for Macron, it showed that it was possible to entrust ordinary citizens with the drafting of law proposals of general interest, far from the influence of lobbies or parties.
9- France has witnessed powerful social movements in recent years (yellow jackets, climate marches, demonstrations against the health pass, etc.). How do you establish the link between these movements and the institutions?
In general, institutions aim to maintain a certain order, to preserve established norms. Therefore, they do not get along well with spontaneous and protesting social movements. It would almost be paradoxical if they were to form a link.