The Role of the Citizen-Consumer in Water Policies

Special Report: Regulation and Users of Networks
Tensions between Stakeholders in French Water Regulation
By Géraldine Pflieger

Since the early 1990’s, the increase of water prices and the denunciation of public-private partnerships encouraged the State, water companies and local authorities to deepen the management transparency and develop their relationships with consumer groups. The opening of the governance system to user representatives is resulting in new tensions between different representations of the user, as consumer, customer or citizen. Each stakeholder (State, local authorities, firms and consumer groups) is prioritizing a special and strategic representation of the user. How are these representations articulated? Between consumer and citizen, which figure is actually emerging and how is the status of users modified?
At the national level, the State and consumer groups tend to develop a pro-consumerist policy: fair price levels, utilities efficiency and consumer information. On the other hand, firms are trying to bring out the figure of the citizen, worried by the environment and the preservation of water quality. At the local level, the user status is varying with contexts. The user can be perceived either as a simple consumer or as a hybrid of citizen and consumer. The examples of Grenoble and Ardèche show that consumption issues could be opened to citizen debates about public choices, investment strategies or drinking water quality. This debate opening depends on local authorities competences and communication strategies, consumer groups agendas, and specific local issues (resource scarcity, corruption cases).

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