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Rules of Procedure for the Conduct of Meetings: Toward a Small
Democratic Revolution in France
Robert’s Rules of Order.  Does the name mean anything to you?  Regardless whether it does or not, it refers to a powerful tool to conduct meetings geared toward the exercise of power and the contestation of that power, as well as the legitimization of the ebb and flow of deliberations in civil society.  Robert’s Rules of Order (the first edition appeared in 1876)1 embodies rules which emphasize the importance of each person’s right of expression, of respect for certain behavioral rules for the proper functioning of debates and of democratic decision-making that respects the minority. 
Joseph Smallhoover
These rules are used by at least 85% of the associations and other entities in the United States (clubs, political parties, commercial societies or religious congregations) which want to organize deliberative decision-making. The Code Morin, developed by Québécois notaire2  Victor Morin, provides rules similar to Robert’s Rules of Order that are adapted to the Francophone community in Canada.

Even if the history of Robert’s Rules of Order stretches back only a little over a century, the concept has its origins in antiquity.  In ancient Greece3 and at the time of the Romans4 (some 450 years BC), one finds traces of the organization of deliberative assemblies where rules were implemented on the manner of taking the floor, submitting propositions and voting on resolutions.  In the Fifth Century, the English organized “meetings of sages”5 during the course of which they developed rules on how to hold a democratic assembly. In the United States, this type of practice began in the legislative institutions during the colonial period, then was followed by the adoption of parliamentary rules after independence6. These practices then progressively developed in all domains and all classes of society.  Today, these rules are so deeply ingrained in the mores of the societies which have adopted them that they are applied naturally and almost unconsciously.

The Europe of today, and France in particular, is less acquainted with this domain than the English-speaking world, and to convince European civil societies, including that of France, to accept such a radical change in their modes of functioning could take some time. For the moment, no mention of this type of rule has been made in French civil society.  And yet who has not wished, after having attended a general assembly (of condominium owners for example), that it could have been conducted in a calm and orderly fashion?

The elementary rules of social life already exist at the heart of assemblies in France but are revealed to be insufficient to hold debates that properly respect participants’ rights.  One might therefore hope for integration of these types of measures in our French civil society. At the heart of the French National Parliament, there are rules of parliamentary procedure which organize the internal functioning of the legislative houses by means of diverse regulations and general instructions7, but there are no traces of this type of procedure in French civil organizations and associations.

There are many explanations for the absence of rules governing debates in such places.  The first reason is historical.  Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his work On Democracy in America in 1835 that, “it is by no means the use of power or the habit of obeying which depraves men, it is the use of a power which they consider illegitimate and the obeying of a power which they view as usurped and oppressive.”8  More recently, Laurent Cohen-Tanugi9, in his work Droit sans l’Etat, explains how the State has little by little confiscated from civil society all its rightful initiative and autonomy.  According to Laurent Cohen-Tanugi, we have simply become the governed; one recalls the anecdote of the student at the Sorbonne who, interviewed by a television station during the anti-CPE protests, complained of the fact that the students had no idea how to organize a debate.  In such a context, Laurent Cohen-Tanugi10 emphasizes that the source of normalization is mistakenly perceived as a prerogative of the State in France. He explains that there has not been a “dissemination of social power”11 which could give to French society a self-regulatory function of the type so well recognized in American society, where the citizens act autonomously with respect to the State and recognize the power to institute, and to edict, their own rules in their private relations.

Laurent Cohen-Tanugi’s thesis reveals with force that the French citizenry has a traditional enough conception of relations between State and society, represented by a flowchart descending from taking power and autonomy12 (of which the summit is the State and the base the society).  Finally, Laurent Cohen-Tanugi admits, it has been said that one reason why an absence of procedures permitting meetings to be held in an orderly and democratic fashion is the pessimism of the French, who do not really believe in the capacity of the law (even soft law) to resolve social conflicts. They are afraid, says Laurent Cohen-Tanugi, to introduce rules into their personal interactions because they fear that doing so would put in question their security, status and rights.

And yet, hypothesizing that this type of practice would take hold in France, one might fear that the institutionalization of such rules would affect the force of traditional French social critique by an excessive formalism in the organization of deliberative assemblies. For in France the members of the civil society13 speak up more and more forcefully and aspire to a certain activism which comes in direct conflict with “Statification” (étatisation).  Far more individualistic interventions see the light of day with the development of associative life14, citizen juries15, participative workshops16 or neighborhood counsels17. The very processes by which such rules would be implemented in the evolution of participative and deliberative18  democracies already exist and require a proactive debate so that a just and democratic organization of deliberative assemblies respecting majority and minority groups can take place.

In the context of institutionalizing the methods of organizing deliberative assemblies in order to encourage constructive debate and decision-making that reflects the discussions and propositions of participants, a progressive implementation of this type of measures would be desirable.  For then the debate is all the richer and the orators are not confronted by “deputies [who] embroil the debate and exhaust the assembly,” according to the consecrated formula of Alexis de Tocqueville19.  

For the time being, the question remains open.  In a near future, perhaps we will see the eight million condominium owners associations, as well as the millions of French associations or, better, the meetings of boards of directors adopt these measures20. It is certain that France has everything to win by institutionalizing the “management of conflicts of interest, the support of a certain transparence and a global improvement of the modalities of decision making.21” And for those who have not yet seen the utility of these rules of procedure, we recall that Henry M. Robert, founder of Robert’s Rules of Order, said “where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty.22” 
1 Last version available today: Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 10th Edition, Perseus Books Group, Cambridge MA, 2000.
2 The original French is maintained because the English translation “notary” does not connote the same meaning.  In civil law jurisdictions, a notaire is a public officer, although not necessarily admitted to practice law as an avocat, of high social standing.
3 Jacques Dufresne, La démocratie athénienne, Miroir de la nôtre, La Bibliothèque de L'Agora, Ayer's Cliff (Québec), 1994. 
4 Georges Demeter, Demeter’s Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure, Blue Book, p. 4-5.
5 Originally called  witenagemot in Old English.
6 Such as the US House Rules and Manual,
7 The Parliament disposes of many written sources for parliamentary procedure: the properly called regulations of the National Assembly and the Senate; the General Instructions of the Office of Two Chambers and of the Regulation of the Congress of Parliament as well as the Constitution of 1958 regarding the functioning of the two assemblies.
8 Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, éditions Flammarion page 20.
9 Lawyer in Paris and New York and author of Le droit sans l’Etat (1985), La métamorphose de la démocratie (1989), L’europe en danger (1992) among others.
10 Le droit sans l’Etat, Laurent Cohen-Tanugi, éditions Puf 2007.
11 Le droit sans l’Etat, Laurent Cohen-Tanugi, éditions Puf 2007 page 10 preface by Stanley Hoffmann.
12 Le droit sans l’Etat, Laurent Cohen-Tanugi, éditions Puf 2007 page 23.
13 Jean-Michel Fourniau, « L’institutionnalisation du débat public », Ceras - revue Projet n°297, March 2007.
14 L’important c’est de participer by Roger Sue, April 24, 2007
15 Like for example the jury concerning the evaluation of the regional policy against climate change which took place in Poitou-Charentes in May 2008
16 An example is the studio concerning the evaluation of regional markets of the discovery of September 17, 2008 in Poitou-Charentes
17 Created by the Law Vaillant of 2002 establishing the participation of inhabitants on the questions of projects of neighborhood development.
18 Qu’est ce que la démocratie participative? by Philippe Merlant, April 24, 2007
19 Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, éditions Flammarion page 740.
20 Victor Morin (updated by Michel Delorme), Procédure des assemblées délibérantes, éditions Beauchemin, Montréal, 1994, most recent updated version: Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 10th edition, Perseus Books Group, Cambridge MA, 2000.
21 Notes taken at the reading by Sylvie Ollitrault on Louis Simard, Laurent Lepage, Jean-Michel Fourniau, Michel Gariépy, Mario Gauthier ed., Le débat public en apprentissage : aménagement et environnement. Regards croisés sur les expériences françaises et québécoises.
22 Last updated version available: Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 10th edition, Perseus Books Group, Cambridge MA, 2000.

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