French critical citizenship: between philosophical enthusiasm and political uncertainty


This paper sketches the portrait of French critical citizens on the eve of the 2017 presidential election. Following the work of Norris (Critical citizens: global support for democratic government, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999), critical citizenship has emerged as part and parcel of the crisis in representative democracy. While critical citizenship is mainly discussed as a sign of civic apathy and distrust of political institutions and elites, our objective is to investigate the “positive” face of critical citizenship with a focus on what French critical citizens value and aspire to. Drawing on data from the CEVIPOF 2017 French electoral survey, we analyse the socio-demographic and political profile of four groups (Non-Critical Citizens, Demo-Reformers, Demo-Transformers and Demo-Exiters) and examine what is theoretically at stake in their respective models of democracy, criticism and aspirations.

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  1. 1.

    The “Yellow Jackets” movement started as a protest against the increase in the domestic consumption tax on energy products, including petroleum (TIPP). The struggle against social injustice and fiscal inequalities lied at its core. In particular, limiting the wealth tax (ISF) to property assets was a bone of contention.

  2. 2.

    French secondary technical qualifications.

  3. 3.

    Position on the left is based on the added rates for the items “very left-wing”, “left-wing” and “somewhat left-wing”.

  4. 4.

    Position on the right is based on the added rates for the items “very right-wing”, “right-wing” and “somewhat right-wing”.

  5. 5.

    In this article, we refer to the different parties in question using the name effective at the time of the survey.

  6. 6.

    See Appendix for data on Macron and his political movement.

  7. 7.

    The question about ‘good’ democracy was as follows: “Here are different ways to define what democracy should be. What is your opinion of these different propositions? Please evaluate each answer on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 = completely disagree, 10 = completely agree)?” Five randomized items that begin with “Democracy is…” were then proposed to the respondents (for details, see Table 3).

  8. 8.

    The following question was put to respondents: “People have different opinions about the way in which France is governed. Some of these opinions can be critical. Do the following criticisms seem pertinent to you?” To answer, respondents were invited to evaluate their level of agreement with each of the seven randomised items (see Table 4) on a scale from 0 to 10 (0 = completely disagree, 10 = completely agree).

  9. 9.

    The question was phrased as follows: “People have different opinions about how France might be better governed. Do the following propositions seem pertinent to you? Please evaluate each answer on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 = completely disagree, 10 = completely agree)”. For details of the six randomised items, see Table 5.

  10. 10.

    In the module, the meaning ascribed by respondents to French citizenship was studied using the following question: “Some people believe that, in order to be a genuine French citizen, it is essential to have some of the following characteristics. For others, this is not essential. In your opinion, to be a genuine French citizen, is it important to….” Six answers were then proposed. Respondents were asked to evaluate each of them on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 = absolutely not important, 10 = absolutely important). The six items were: “Respecting each individual’s rights”; “Taking part in elections”; “Living on French territory”; “Identifying with the typically French way of life”; “Being informed about and interested in politics”; “Engaging for the benefit of the collective”.


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Correspondence to Janie Pélabay.

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See Table 6.

Table 6 Popularity rating and voting intention hypotheses

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Pélabay, J., Sénac, R. French critical citizenship: between philosophical enthusiasm and political uncertainty. Fr Polit 17, 407–432 (2019).

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  • Critical citizenship
  • Representative democracy
  • Participation
  • Distrust
  • France