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Mapping the French Political Blogosphere

BY Antonella Napolitano | Monday, December 5 2011

Map of the French political blogosphere in 2011. Source: Linkfluence - Le Monde

I'm in Paris where the first PdF France will take place tomorrow. 
An amazing list of speakers will explore the impact of digital campaigning (Presidential elections are only a few months away), how the science of data can be used to make campaigns and politics more efficient and innovative and what's next for open data in France.
Meanwhile here's a preview of some of tomorrow's content: a long post exploring the French political blogosphere with the help of Linkfluence CTO Guilhem Fouetillou, who will be one of our speaker tomorrow.

With the French presidential elections coming in spring 2012, the political conflict is on between the two candidates, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist opponent François Hollande.

The Internet is a political battleground for this election, both in social network conversations and in the political blogosphere, which is by now almost an old actor in the French media scene.

Compared to other European countries, the French blogosphere has a relatively long history. In 2005 the adoption of a European Constitution was rejected by French voters and the “no” campaign was conducted also in the blogosphere, against the urgings of many in the political class to vote “yes”. This event eventually led blogs to become rising voices in the French political conversation.

But how can the study of the blogosphere help us to have a better understanding of the political scene in France today?

When it comes to mapping political blogs, the Internet firm Linkfluence has been a leading voice since 2007, when they published their first study of the French blogosphere. (They also did a similar study on the U.S. blogosphere, which they presented at PdF 2008 in New York City.) Last summer, Le Monde decided to team up with Linkfluence to present an updated map of the national political blogosphere, published last June, and to study the evolution of the political conversation during the campaign on the blog Politicosphère.

We asked Linkfluence CTO Guilhem Foeutillou, who also spoke at PdF Europe 2010, to describe his company’s plans for 2012. In six years, with the rise of social media in politics, the web has radically changed. 

Linkfluence’s methodology has changed, too, says Fouetillou in an email interview, but social networks are just a part of the media ecology:

“In our opinion, there is different social spaces on social media. Some public, some private. Some based on publication and influential contents, other based on engagement and affinity. For the 2012 campaign, we're monitoring content spaces such as influential blogs and media websites AND engagement and recommendation public spaces as Facebook public pages and Twitter accounts.”

Linkfluence’s research so far has been articulated in two areas: the mapping of the political blogosphere and the online conversation analysis of the Socialist primary elections.

2007-2011: the Evolution of the Political Blogosphere

The French political blogosphere is a favorite topic of analysis for Linkfluence. 

Back in July, Fouetillou traced the main stages of the French blogosphere evolution on Le Monde. Here’s a summary of his findings.

Stage 1: 2007
After the referendum of 2005 the first test for the blogosphere was the 2007 presidential elections, with right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy versus Socialist Party’s Ségolène Royal. In that occasion the Socialist Party chose its candidate with primary elections, with Royal being the underdog.
Fouetillou wrote on Le Monde:

The map of 2007 shows how the web presence was a strategic issue for political parties. Primarily for the Socialist Party which has seen its presence explode when the nomination contest happened, with many local branches of “Desirs d’avenires” [Desirs d’avenirs is the name of the social network created by Royal’s staff at the time].

Map of the French political blogosphere in 2007. Source: Linkfluence - Le Monde

Stage 2: 2009
In 2009 the web continued to grow but things were not the same for the political blogosphere. The 2009 map of the blogosphere had 40 percent fewer sites. 

On Le Monde Fouetillou explained the development of this stage: “This may sound counter-intuitive but that’s what happened: two years after the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, the blogosphere growth rate decreased and the activists engagement during the presidential election disappeared.”

The Socialist Party strengthened its role, while the Right-wing blogosphere divides into three groups. The biggest news seems to be given by the great level of interaction between blogs supporting Modem, the moderate democrats.  

Map of the French political blogosphere in 2009. Source: Linkfluence - Le Monde

Stage 3: 2011

Two years later the political blogosphere is pretty much the same size, with one significant exception: the growth of the extreme right. 

The web has changed, though: with the rise of social networks, blogs are no longer the only means of expression for activists.

Map of the French political blogosphere in 2011. Source: Linkfluence - Le Monde

“Blogs became a place of regular content production, relevant to experts and influencers. They also become interesting to watch as a place where public opinion was shaped, somewaht extending the public space beyond the influence of mainstream media.” Fouetillou argued on Le Monde, underlining the lasting importance of blogs’ role in the conversation. 

The Road to Elections: the Socialist Primary 
The first bend in the road to elections came in mid-October with the Socialist primary elections, in which longtime politician François Hollande won the party nomination.

This was also a first test in the analysis of the political conversation on the web.
Linkluence set up an observatory of the Socialist primary on Le Monde. They chose an unusual model, updated every week and not day by day, in order to have a better understanding of actual trends and distinguish the conversations that lasted weeks from the ones that “burned” in just a few hours. 

An example of the latter is that irony does not seem to work that much in the French audience. When a photo of a dramatically lit Martine Aubry - who Hollande defeated in a second round of Socialist primary elections - was published in the popular newspaper Libération, it sparked comments and parodies but the volume of the conversation was not significant. 

“The tweets about this article represented 10% of the overall tweets about Martine Aubry the 19th and 20th of September and it disappeared just after.” explained Fouetillou in our interview.

But were social media relevant in shaping the political conversation online? The answer seems to be yes, but what we may call “the political buzz” was not a decisive indicator of success. Take the case of Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate opposing Sarkozy in 2007. Royal was popular in online discussions but ended up a mere fourth in the primary race. 

Fouetillou exposed his interpretation by email: “Her supporters learned to use social media five years ago and developed an expertise they naturally continued to use since then. For the most active Hollande and Aubry supporters, it was less obvious and easy to use social media. I really think it's an important factor for this difference between her visibility online and her election result.”  In other words, Royal’s online presence was bigger than her actual support among voters because Hollande and Aubry voters were relative newcomers to the social media scene.

Social networks surely have an impact but usually do not create new content, Fouetillou told us. Conversations on these spaces are mostly private, “so they shouldn't be in our range of observation,” he argued. 

“Social networks are the new backlinks!” he concludes.