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[OP-ED]: In France, Still Waiting for the Internet Election

BY Federica Cocco | Friday, May 11 2012

A film crew is granted exclusive access to a video conference between President Obama and outgoing French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. It’s an iconographic attempt that recalls the famous picture taken of the Obama administration witnessing live footage of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. It’s a PR stunt, of course - and Sarkozy betrays any attempt at subtlety.

He mutters a few words in English, “How are you?” - and then, the grand finale: “We will win Barack. We will win together.”

The video was mocked in the blogosphere, and Sarkozy lost the elections. The incidents are not cause-and-effect. And the association between Obama and Sarkozy - both engaged in campaigns for presidency in their home turf - ends here.

Sarkozy is not the only politician to have lauded Obama’s 2008 campaign. Many European campaigns were running slogans that echoed the “Yes, we can!” refrain.

The gimmicky rhetoric failed to persuade their electorate and, when push came to shove, pretty much the whole old continent has effectively failed to heed Obama’s campaign strategy. Mainstream parties didn’t carry out grassroots mobilization and fundraising in earnest. A top-down approach persisted.

In April, Greece and Italy also went to the ballots. Experts widely agreed that the electoral results were determined by a popular opposition to the austerity measures that have been plaguing Greece, Spain and Italy since the financial crisis broke out in 2008/9.

But was it solely austerity that impacted upon the elections?

Outliers to this hypothesis will struggle to understand why, despite being supposedly cash-strapped, the main parties invested considerably more on their web campaign than they had done five years previously.

“Every five years French pundits claim the elections will be won online, and every five years it turns out their claims were largely exaggerated,” says political analyst and journalist Olivier Tesquet.

Seemingly, campaign strategies haven’t evolved all that much since the last presidential elections of 2007. So the question is, on what were those extra millions of Euros spent?

Most seems to have gone to Emakina, a digital communications agency that UMP - Sarkozy’s party - hired in late 2010 to run their digital campaign. The agency was previously linked to Ben Ali. And what, then, were the results of this huge investment?

Here are a few musings from the past few weeks:

- The main parties put together two social networks which had the result of simply giving an extra platform to people who already supported them, and were already active in politics: Les Créateurs des Possibles - The creators of possibilities - (UMP) and La Coopol (Socialist Party)

Result: No candidate or main party was able to leverage the internet to recruit new supporters.

- No nationwide debate emerged online, and no leader made any significant announcement on Twitter or Facebook.

Result: The Internet remained a secondary medium, as opposed to television.

- Speaking of Twitter, candidates used it merely to update their schedule. “I’ll be on X programme at 7pm tomorrow” - nothing about their policies, manifestos or ideas.

Result: The Internet remained an echo chamber of traditional media.

- A few candidates launched a number of slick websites: Notably the Fronte Gauche and Francois Bayrou.

Result: Despite being fresh and gimmicky, the sites failed to marshal support.

- Parody Twitter accounts garnered attention from TV anchors. Most popular was an account run by L’Humour de droite, which finds its US equivalent in LOLGop.

Result: Online, humour and satire received more attention than civic debate.

- Political parties attempted to engage in negative invectives and battles of rivalling hashtags.

Result: Users were largely indifferent to it.

Rue89 journalist Martin Untersingers offers an interesting interpretation of the phenomenon. In France, the Internet is not considered a separate sphere anymore; news and analysis websites have been integrating the public in the general debate, therefore candidates don’t feel like they must also address a separate public online. Overall this approach has turned this campaign into a rather dispirited affair.

Despite this, there were some promising moves in a different direction. Aside from Sarkozy's Deezer playlist, and his FourSquare check-ins, much was made of the Socialist Party's recruitment of 160,000 new supporters via door-to-door campaigning. Les Bostoniens, as they came to be known, were originally three students, including Harvard graduate Guilliame Liegey, who was in Boston in 2008 and witnessed Obama's campaign first-hand. Though it is difficult to quantify their impact, it is clear this was merely an initial foray. Les Bostoniens did not stem from the web, and were not borne of a new bold move in mainstream party politics.

Federica Cocco was born in Cagliari, Sardinia. She was educated in Italy, the United States and England and worked in Paris as editor-in-chief of Owni.eu until 2011. She has also worked for Amnesty International, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Times in London and Wired Italy & UK. She is currently freelance.