While participatory democracy is often presented as a means for public authorities to channel conflict in setting up top-down deliberative initiatives, the study of a bottom-up participatory process offers a much complex picture, shedding a new light on the articulation between participation and conflict in the public sphere. The paper presents the results of an ethnographic study of a participatory process that took place in Florence in 2011-2012 at the request of the Muslim community of the city, using a disposition of the Regional law for participation. As a matter of fact, deliberation managed to bring down the tensions around the project of construction of a mosque that could have, as it happened in many other European cities, resulted in a harsh conflict over the symbolic appropriation of the territory. It worked so well that the absence of conflict resulted in very limited participation and discussion in the local public sphere, failing to create a shared legitimate output such as the localization of the future religious center. Despite such failure, the participatory process also fostered the empowerment of the Florentine Muslim community that witnessed the emergence of new leaders and a broader public recognition of its civic status in the city. This indirect outcome of the process could constitute a crucial resource for the future battles over the construction of the mosque. This study therefore confirms the need to study together the policy, the politics and the microfoundations of participatory democracy to understand fully its consequences. Only when all these elements are analyzed together can the effects of participation be adequately understood.
Keywords: Particpation; public space; contentious politics; local government