Training & Coaching

From Activist Journalist to Co-Creating an Organisation Supporting Grassroots Movements | Meet Our Members

Meet VoxPublic's Benjamin Sourice, who was part of the original team that set up the organisation seven years ago. Liberties chatted with Benjamin about his journey working in civil society, his role at VoxPublic, and staying ahead of the far-right.

by Eleanor Brooks

Growing up in the west of France in a village near Segré, you could say that Benjamin’s childhood primed him for a career in the civil society sector. When the French state tried to build facilities to dispose of nuclear waste next to his village, his father was one of the anti-nuclear activists leading a local grassroots movement. Everyone banned together, from farmers and environmentalists to local representatives, and the project was cancelled. Witnessing this popular victory gave Benjamin his first taste of how the power of community can be harnessed to resist unwanted state imposition.

As a student, Benjamin was determined not to use his skills in the private sector. After graduating from Science Po, he got his first job at a watchdog organisation called Sherpa for the Combat-Monsanto campaign, which monitors the agriculture conglomerate Monsanto, whose products, including GMOs and glyphosate-based pesticides, have been found to be toxic to the environment and human health. This was followed by a brief stint as a journalist. Benjamin laughs as he tells me this, describing himself as a “bad journalist” because he mostly wrote for free activist newspapers and struggled to earn a living. He has also written and published two political essays, one on the power of citizens against lobbies and another on ‘the square democracy movement’ in Europe.

A resounding success: supporting undocumented women campaign for mobility equality

Benjamin’s passion for activism propelled him to get involved with VoxPublic, where he was part of the original team that set up the organisation seven years ago. The only organisation of its kind in France, Voxpublic is a small team of four that trains and supports grassroots associations fighting discrimination and also social and environmental injustices. The goal is to help them build their mobilisation and advocacy capacities and to equip them with the tools they need so that they can carry out their work autonomously. Benjamin is responsible for supporting associations to develop an advocacy strategy and its follow-up.

One such example that Benjamin is especially proud of is his work with CHO3 (Collective of Organized Residents of the 3rd arrondissement), a local group in Marseille made up of mainly undocumented women. The women wanted price reductions in public transport fares to include low-income people, but their fear of the police and the hostile treatment by the conservative Metropolis was holding them back from organising public actions. This is where VoxPublic stepped in. Voxpublic supported the women to gain confidence in their abilities by addressing their needs through training and strategy development. They also created a secure framework for CHO3 by linking them up with another organisation, and involving a lawyer and journalist. Benjamin says it was “a joy” to see the women organising and taking part in their first protest in front of the city council. After a six-month ‘Mobility for All’ campaign, the women succeed in securing a 50% reduction in public transport fares.

Benjamin Sourice with with CHO3 (Collective of Organized Residents of the 3rd arrondissement)

Rule of law woes: France’s civil society faces mounting repression

But there’s no doubt that Europe’s changing political landscape is making it harder for citizen groups to shift the needle on social issues and in Liberties’ rule of law monitoring, France has persistently performed poorly in the protection of civic space. In Liberties’ Rule of Law Report 2024, VoxPublic reported that organisations advocating for ethnic minorities, protests in solidarity with Palestine, climate activists and yellow vests faced repression. Meanwhile, there appears to be a more tolerant stance towards the farmers’ protest movement, which even saw the state turn a blind eye when violent tactics were used by unmasked protestors.

Benjamin supports farmers’ demands for better working conditions and income, but the government’s soft response to violent protests and willingness to quickly negotiate when financial or economic interests are at stake stands in stark contrast to the harsh repression against movements defending public interest or minority issues. In three weeks and after burning down several public buildings and customs cars, with just the threat of blocking roads surrounding Paris, farmers succeeded in opening negotiations and removing disputed environmental rules, that, according to Benjamin, “for us it took fifteen years [to introduce]”.

Change or die: Voxpublic’s new tactics to overcome civil society’s exclusion

It would be easy to respond to such blows with pessimism, and indeed securing victories is not as easy today as it was in his father’s time.

According to Benjamin, “during the first mandate of Macron’s presidency victories were rare, but we still managed to change some laws and win some points. Now, everything is locked and there is no more consultation.” The passing of pension reform laws without a parliament vote is a case in point. According to France’s country report in our latest rule of law report, this measure of imposing a law without a vote, which is nevertheless provided for in the French constitution (Article 49.3) but normally restricted to limited situations, was used 23 times in 2023. Despite this being a flagrant breach of the rule of law, the only alternative would be to dissolve the Assembly to obtain a better majority with a new vote, which Macron is safely betting won’t happen because this could pave the way for the far-right to enter power. A threat that the presidential camp never tires of raising to justify its own authoritarianism.

Instead of losing hope, VoxPublic is changing tactics. Benjamin tells me that while previously VoxPublic trained organisations to negotiate and reach politicians, they’ve since given up on negotiation completely. Instead, from the get-go, VoxPublic teaches organisations how to build a power balance by generating public support and working with the media. While this involves a more aggressive communication strategy, the goal is not to aggravate politicians, but to point out that they are not following rules and highlight systemic bias.

The nimbleness of France’s media sector makes this collaboration possible. Although Benjamin is wary of the threat posed by Vincent Bolloré’s ever-expanding media empire backing the far-right, he is optimistic about the wide variety of independent newspapers, particularly the not-for-profit model adopted by investigative media outlets to weather the turbulent media environment.

Staying one step ahead of the far-right

Turning to ongoing projects, Benjamin tells me that VoxPublic bolsters the work of an association in Paris, La Cloche, composed of homeless people. Their mission is to combat the installation of aggressive urban ‘anti-homeless’ devices designed to prevent rough sleepers from setting up camp in public spaces, which are expected to ramp up with the upcoming Olympic Games.

With the prospect of a right-wing government on the horizon and current threats posed by radical right-wing groups, VoxPublic is developing new projects to understand how civil society can protect itself amidst an uncertain present and future. This will see VoxPublic bring together CSOs and founders of non-profit organisations or non-lucrative cooperatives to elaborate a counter strategy for the 2026 municipal election and 2027 presidential and legislative elections.

As part of this, VoxPublic plans to invite CSOs from other European countries to learn from their experience in countering far-right election campaigns, thanks to funding from Liberties' CERV re-grant program. According to Benjamin,

“participating in the Liberties coalition gives us the opportunity to compare our French perspectives with those of our European neighbours. By belonging to the network, we have access to a directory of activists whom we can invite to speak at events or on webinars and to exchange best practices. What's more, the network enables us to take part in European advocacy on rights and freedoms. It would be too difficult for a small organisation like ours to do so alone and to access European public funding.”

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