French Election Shows the Limits of User-Generated Content

[Cross-posted at techPresident.]

In a discussion about the recent French presidential election at the Personal Democracy Forum unConference this past Saturday, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry presented an interesting thesis: not only did Ségolène Royal’s ‘net-centric strategy fail to win a majority at the polls, but her campaign’s emphasis on citizen participation may have actually backfired entirely by undermining her perception as a leader and by leaving her dependent on a fatally unrepresentative group of voters.

The two main French candidates had very difficult styles of online engagement. Nikolas Sarkozy’s campaign, the eventual winner, followed a video-heavy but also top-driven model. His campaign site had a very large video section, but the individual clips were far from being a conversation — instead, most were the classic campaign footage of speeches, rallies and presentations, hosted internally rather than on a video sharing site. His site allowed no reader comments, and the closest thing to an interaction with followers was a debate “blog,” on which site visitors could vote on topics that would later be answered on the site in text form. No Web 2.0 wanted here, thank you very much.

Royal’s online strategy, by contrast, focused heavily on fostering conversation with and among supporters. In part, this was by necessity — in the primary process, she was opposed by her party’s hierarchy and was frozen out of the party campaign machinery, and she adopted a web-centric strategy to bypass traditional filters and speak directly to voters. For instance, a visit to her main campaign site might begin with a splash-page photo taken by a supporter and chosen by an online vote. The user-centric approach continued on the site’s (admittedly cluttered/somewhat junky) front page, which featured supporter blogs, recent reader forum comments and embedded videos hosted on, a video-sharing site popular in France.

Royal actually encouraged supporters to start their own stand-alone blogs rather than campaign-hosted ones in the mold of the Obama and other American presidential campaigns, and supporters were asked to vote on which citizen blogs would be linked-to from the campaign site’s main page. In other 2.0-style moves, Royal also held supporter video contests, with some entries receiving up to 2 million views (in a country with only 60 million residents), and employed Google Map mashups to display upcoming events.

The Royal campaign went even farther beyond the typical in its user-centric approach, however: much of her campaign platform was determined by discussions and votes in online forums. In effect, she gave up an amount of control over both message and substance to an extent unprecedented for a major political leader — she became what Jill Walker from the University of Bergen characterized as a “wikipedia politician,” whose positions might shift from week to week, depending on the results of an online vote

This degree of supporter influence seems to have gone too far, however: Royal’s desire to be a “platform for the people” led French voters to see her as being blown by the winds of opinion rather than having strong convictions herself. Some specific campaign tactics backfired as well, with “e-watchmen,” whose job was to monitor opposing blogs and post comments in her support, ending up alienating many bloggers and their readers by posting unsophisticated messages in large numbers — essentially, committing the sin of comment spam.

In fact, her campaign’s failure despite a sophisticated online strategy may have been foreordained, since as Gobry pointed out, French Internet users aren’t representative of the population as a whole. Relying on their opinions as a gauge of what the public wants may have been a strategic misjudgment from the very beginning! In any case, Sarkozy won the final runoff election by the largest margin since the days of De Gaulle, and Royal’s great personal charisma and strong online support saved her not at all. Let this campaign be a lesson to all political Web 2.0 enthusiasts — in electoral politics, the voter opinions that ultimately matter are the ones they have in mind when they pull the lever on a voting machine.

For another take: How web 2.0 impacted the french presidential campaign and helped Sarkozy enter Elysees 1.0?


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • […] I’ve been meaning to write up Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s very interesting discussion of Ségolène Royale’s online campaign from the PDF Unconference on Saturday, but I’ve not had time yet. Luckily Colin Delaney has done it for me at e.politics, even citing my comment that it sounded as though Ségo was trying to run as a “wikipedia president”, allowing her politics to be edited by the people in real time. […]

  • Hey Colin,

    Good story. Just wondering about Sego and her socialist cause.

    Was the Web’s role in French politics really that powerful in her case? Did she really switch positions because she tended to the the users on her site to much? That idea sure jumps to conclusions about her site and about France.

    Analysis on French blogs and in the French press seem to indicate she had a mountain of issues anyway. She listened to the wrong people, didn’t have a good staff.

    And for some reason she specialized in all kinds of political gaffes in her campaign. Young people didn’t vote for her, it seems. And she just didn’t have much of a coherent stance on issues either online or offline.

    Call her a wikipedia politician, it certainly sounds right, but I think she might well be a politician without clear positions either online or offline, whether you catch her on the Web, on her cellphone or in Egyptian hieroglyphs etched into her stone newletter.

    Her Web site was not as slick as Sarko’s which had better design. more video. Then again he did cater to the right in his campaign, which in France is a nasty extreme right. So can we like the Web site but not the politician? Uh oh, that sounds like a wrong way street. Maybe he will turn out to be all right, who knows.

    Vivien, good points all around. I probably should have tossed in a few more of those qualifying words that let a writer hedge just the right amount. Of course, the ‘net didn’t win or lose the French election, but Pascal’s point was more that it contributed to voters’ sense of Royal as a candidate. It sounds as though the position-by-vote concept fit with a concept voters were developing about her — that she didn’t really stand for anything.

    BTW, we of course get to like the website and hate the candidate — I can dislike the Soviet regime but still groove on stylized socialist realist posters, for instance. Just as we can recognize a good speech as a good speech, even if we disagree completely with the content. — cpd