For the first time, the French political discussion was taken into the digital world in 2012, and Twitter played an instrumental role.
Election campaign fever swept across France between September 2011 and December 2012. Twitter played an instrumental role throughout the entire election process, beginning with François Holland’s leadership in the Socialist Party open primaries in October 2011. Campaign fever continued even after Hollande’s election to the Presidency in May 2012, through the Parliamentary primaries in November. Much like the chaos seen in the U.S. election in Florida in 2000, François Fillon, then Head of UMP, and Jean-François Copé, battled it out on Twitter and in the media, with Copé becoming leader in November 2012.
There are approximately 5 million Twitter users in France and the evolution of social media and its impact on the way people practice politics greatly interests me and my co-writer Nico Prat. This interest resulted in Twittus Politicus, an analysis of how social media is used in political communications. As part of the study, we met with the digital strategists for the main candidates, Romain Pigenel and Manuel Diaz. We also met with some of the key players in France’s first truly social election campaigns.
Here are some key findings of our research:
● Twitter is now fully recognized as a source of information by traditional French media.
● Politicians use their Twitter accounts as personal streams to announce their decisions, positions or reactions to current news. It’s interesting to note that press agencies like AFP (Agence France Presse) that were until recently the main source of information, have shifted to a validation role, confirming what’s being said on Twitter.
● Twitter is used by politicians at all levels. They are conscious that Twitter allows them to connect with influencers, including journalists, who are able to spread and comment on their words.
● Tweeting is an art; the 140 character limit pushes users to polish their punch lines. All politicians on Twitter face the same issue: how does one attract the attention and participation of followers with fast-changing interests?
● We can see a clear difference between those who themselves tweet and those whose advisors tweet for them. And among those who actually tweet themselves, some of them also work with advisors to reflect the politician’s personality and story.
● The French political Twitter stars are neither Hollande nor Sarkozy, but rather pundits, MPs, or former Ministers. Some of them do not hesitate to participate in tweet clashes, responding directly to followers. It’s a new, more direct way to practice politics directly with citizens.
● One of the main questions asked during the campaigns was related to the political leanings of the Twitter community. Accusations came mostly from the right wing, complaining about the left-wing orientation of the Twitter community. However, testimonies from digital strategists show that the question itself is irrelevant. Twitter users build their timeline to reflect their own beliefs, mostly following people they agree with.
● Twitter appeared to be less of a tool to change people’s opinions than a way to support opinions they had already formed. It has been crucial for supporters on both sides of the political scene to join virtual communities and participate to the debate by sharing insights, slogans, and by mixing fun and serious topics.
● 2012 was the year of social TV in France. BFMTV, iTele and LCI broadcasted live the meetings of all the candidates and fed their news streams with information and comments coming from Twitter. Political debates broadcasted on mainstream channels (TF1, France 2) were live tweeted by the candidates’ staff, supporters, and the public.
● The French electoral code says that no result, even partial, can be announced before polls are closed. However, on election day, the French found information by following Belgian and Swiss media twitter accounts that published real-time poll estimates.
If the medium is the message, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, it’s obvious that Twitter has become a must-have in politics. But what’s next? Facebook is mainstream. Mobile apps certainly have their fans on the French political scene. Pinterest and Instagram might be the next step. One thing is certain: the French political scene has gone digital.
Image credit: christoph.schrey