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 SÃ©golÃ¨ne 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 DailyMotion.com, 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.