Summer series: Access to public information in France – baguettes, wine and more than 60,000 government authorities
After our visit to Sweden we travel south. To France. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Baguettes, wine and cheese. And more than 60,000 authorities executing a public task. What do we expect to find in France in terms of access to government information?
⛱️ Access to public information in: France
SPOON spoke with Laurent Savaete, co-founder of MaDada, France’s equivalent to the Woo-Knop. Besides managing MaDada, he is freelance (software) developer. Since the launch of MaDada four years ago, over 40,000 requests have been sent through this platform, by 960 users. ‘Dada’ stands for Droit d’Accès aux Documents Administratifs, and this shows an important aspect of access to government information in France.
Right to documents
In France, as in Sweden, there is no right of access to public information like in the Netherlands, but a right of access to public documents. In the Netherlands, the information you request must be recorded in documents too, but you can ask for the information without having to know exactly in which documents this information can be found. Savaete gives the following example of how this is different in France: ‘I cannot ask the Paris municipality how many police cars it has. I simply won’t get an answer. This is because I first have to find out the name of the document that contains this. Then I need to know exactly which authority I need to contact. Is it the Prefeture de Police de Paris or the Ministry of the Interior?
Over 1 million views
Having to know what a document is called is tricky. Savaete discovered this yet again when his colleague at MaDada requested disclosure of mayors’ expenses: ‘Mayors are allowed to claim three types of expenses: travel expenses, representation expenses and food/drink expenses. If we don’t name exactly which expenses we want disclosed, the request can be rejected because it is ’too vague’. And, if few expenses were incurred, no documents were prepared so we cannot then ask for disclosure either.’
When a response to the request was given by the mayor of Aix-en-Provence the Twitter post about it was viewed more than a million times and reached national television. But, Savaete explains, this also revealed how little is known about the right of access to government documents in France: ‘The first question the journalist on television asked about this was: is it legal to ask about mayors’ expenses?’
No constitutional right, but constitutional value
Even in France, access to public information is still the domain of lawyers and a few expert activists. ‘Even though it is established more than 200 years ago that the government is accountable to its citizens and that citizens have the right to monitor public spending.’ Savaete is referring to the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen adopted in 1789, during the French Revolution. The constitutional values of this declaration were recognised by France’s Conseil constitutionnel (Constitutional Council) in 1971. In 1978, these values were translated into the right of access to government documents, when the Loi portant diverses mesures d’amélioration des relations entre l’administration et le public et diverses dispositions d’ordre administratif, social et fiscal came into force.
These rights have since been transferred to the Code des relations entre le public et l’administration, abbreviated as CRPA. ‘In 2016 France also started with “open data by default” when the the Loi pour une République numérique came into force. This law states, among other things, that any document communicated to whoever requested it should also be made public to everyone.’
Thus, in France, access to government documents is not a fundamental right, as it is in Sweden. But in 2020, the Constitutional Council did, specifically, reaffirm the constitutional value of the right of access to government documents.
‘Unfortunately this doesn’t mean that the law is executed correctly,’ Savaete explains. ‘Based on public data, less than 10 per cent of government bodies publish their documents. There is also an obligation in the CRPA for every authority of a certain size to designate a PRADA, short for Personnes Responsables de l’accès aux documents administratifs similar to the ‘Woo contact person’ required in the Netherlands since the Wet open overheid came into force in May 2022. ‘The official list of agencies with a PRADA currently includes 1877 PRADAs. Our estimate is that there should be about at least twice as many.’
The same applies to the obligation to keep a register with a list of government documents present, in French: Répertoire d’Informaitons Publiques. ‘We have asked 30,000 authorities for this register and, more than a month later, we have only had 20 responses with some replying that they are “working on it”. That’s 18 years after it became mandatory in 2005. Bottom line is that almost no authority has such a register. Which, especially considering we have to ask for the specific document we want to have access to, is problematic.’
‘Official’ documents but also: algorithms
In France, as in Sweden and the Netherlands, there is no data on the number of requests for public documents and decisions. Even the CADA, short for Commission d’accès aux documents administratifs – the regulator of access to government documents in France – where applicants can ask for a review of a decision or, in case no reply is given, for an ‘opinión’ about the delay, does not have enough power and resources to persuade administrative bodies to fulfil these obligations.
As in Sweden only publish ‘official’ documents can be requested in France. Documents preparing these documents, including drafts and many of the internal emails, cannot be communicated or published.
Where France seems to go a lot further than the Netherlands is regarding information about algorithms.1‘Openbaarmaking van overheidsinformatie, een rechtsvergelijkend onderzoek naar de wetgeving in Zweden, het Verenigd Koninkrijk, Duitsland, Frankrijk, Slovenië en Estland’ van A. Drahmann, L.F.D. Honnée en O.A. al Khatib, september 2022 (in Dutch with English summary at the end) Public authorities in France are required to explicitly state that a decision has been taken on the basis of an algorithm, for what purpose and on the basis of which processing rules with associated weighting.
Theory versus practice
‘In France, theory and practice can be quite different things. Savaete adds with a smile: ‘Anyone who has ever stood at a pedestrian traffic light in France knows this.’ He hopes that the Constitutional Council’s 2020 ruling on the constitutional value of the right to access governments documents will bring about a cultural change, but has yet to see it.
What the Netherlands can learn from France could very well be – only – regarding transparency around algorithms. Furthermore, it seems that the Netherlands, once again, comes off better in terms of transparency regarding preparatory documents amongst which drafts and some internal emails. At least, in theory…
We have now travelled towards the eastern part of Europe, and will send a postcard to let you know about the status of freedom of information there.
Do you know more about access to public information in France? Or do you have tips for SPOON’s next ‘holiday destination’?
Please let us know!
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☀️ Enjoy summer ☀️
Holidays have started and SPOON is also packing her bags. A good reason to take a peek across the border.