France is currently conducting a “Grenelle des violences conjugales,” the latest in a long series of “Grenelles.” Young folks may not know the origin of this peculiar appellation for a political form to which the French are peculiarly drawn. Here is some background.
The word comes to us from the “Accords de Grenelle” of 1968. The word “Grenelle” refers to the rue de Grenelle, which happens to be the seat of the Ministry of Labor. In 1968, in the thick of the general uprising of that year known simply as The Events, representatives of business, labor, and government met at the ministry and hammered out an agreement that included a 35% increase in the minimum wage and other concessions to working people. Although the “accords” were never formally signed by any of the parties, the Pompidou government nevertheless acted on them, and the general feeling that the government had retreated in the face of popular anger contributed to a calming of the situation and an eventual “return to normalcy,” although the new normal was quite different from the old.
Ever since, the word “Grenelle” has been applied to this kind of informal institution, in which the government invites civil-society representatives concerned with a particular issue to meet, talk, and assess the probability of compromise. The most notable post-68 “Grenelle” was probably Sarkozy’s “Grenelle de l’environnement” in 2007, which didn’t lead to much of anything.
It would take a long article to explore why the French are repeatedly drawn to this kind of informal ad hoc institution. Perhaps it’s because the formal institutions–government, Assembly, administration–often seem so locked down and impervious to taking in information from outside. The Grenelles open the doors and windows, but one wonders what becomes of the information after it is taken in. The “Grenelle” formula, when practiced in circumstances other than the dramatic chaos that surrounded the original, can seem to be little more than an exercise in political communication. It is strange how what was originally a non-institution or anti-institution conceived precisely to resolve an insoluble conflict has become a kind of institution unto itself, whose purpose is to raise the salience of an issue to which the government wishes to draw attention, rather than to deal, as in ’68, with an issue that the government had previously sought to avoid.