Digital Democracy: Inside the French Presidential Elections

May 11, 2012   •   By Cécile Alduy

Image: Riposte Party at Hollande Campaign Headquarter during the Hollande/ Sarkozy debate of May 2nd. Photo credit: Parti Socialiste.


"FRANCE HAS A NEW PRESIDENT." It does not look like much of a statement on paper, or on a computer screen: five little words, almost too short for a tweet. But France today is still dazed from the news, floating between disbelief, relief, and exhaustion.  


I was in Paris — my native city — on May 6th. All day long we pretended to go about doing things as usual. In the Champ de Mars, dedicated dads ran after seven-year-olds swaying on their brand new two-wheel bicycles. The antiquated carousel turned round and round, creaking on its 100-year-old wheel, as ponytailed girls and boys in checkered shirts rode the elegant cavalry of hand-painted wooden horses, lost in thoughts of cotton candy and pain au chocolat. The banks of the Seine carried along their usual cargo of strollers, joggers, and passersby. By lunchtime, the lines outside the bakeries were longer than those at the poll stations.


Yet underneath the atmosphere was electric. The stormy weather — dark clouds gathering and parting again in long shadows over the cityscape — amplified the tangible tension: whispers, surreptitious phone calls, and anxious Facebook posts full of question marks and emoticons punctuated the afternoon that would decide the fate of France for the next five years.


It was more superstition than suspense: exit polls had already been leaked by the nearby Belgian media outlets; online, the #radiolondres hashtag was circumventing the French law that strictly forbids the publication of any polling numbers before 8pm on election day (or else be fined 75,000 Euros) by sharing the news in blatantly legible code ["#Sarkozy, sink different"].


We knew, but we did not dare believe it. "We've all been traumatized by April 21, 2002" — when Socialist hopeful Lionel Jospin was eliminated in the first round, arriving third after far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen — "and by the defeat of Ségolène Royal in 2007," confided 24-year-old Rémi Sabau, a "digital activist" for the Socialist Party I had interviewed the night before for the Boston Review. "So I'll believe it when I see François Hollande's face appear on the screen at 8pm."


But, in spite of this fetishist nostalgia for the ritual of the "ta-dah..." moment of televised epiphany, this time around much of the action was on the Internet rather than on TV screens. Sabau knew that better than anyone: he, with a handful of fellow activists, helped launch the digital campaign that played no small part in Hollande's success. Back in June of 2011, thirty young people were experimenting with Twitter and other social media to help secure the Socialist party primary for Hollande. They organized what became a staple of the digital information war during the French elections: "Riposte Parties" (also called "Counterpunch Tweet Parties") that covered each debate live in 140-word fact-and theory-checking messages. This worked so well during the primary — Hollande was nominated with 56% of the votes — that the official presidential campaign team asked Sabau and his fellow riposters to put together a special unit dedicated to the internet battle. "Cellule Riposte et Influence" [The Counterpunch and Influence Unit] now counts over 1,200 "digital activists," as they call themselves: young members of the Socialist Party, independent bloggers, experts, party officials who are joined by regular folks eager to act, debate, and express themselves. Their mission? To respond within a fraction of seconds to attacks from other candidates, fight misinformation with facts and evidence, spread targeted hashtags to dominate the news cycle, and, more broadly, help #Hollande and #FH2012 prevail, both online and in the ballot booth.


What they had not foreseen is that, with Twitter and other online tools, day-to-day politics would become as fun and addictive as gaming for their growing fan base. "We started with a few followers back in June. Now François Hollande [@fhollande] has 328,500 followers — more than any other political figure in France," Rémi adds. For a boy who grew up in a small town of 2,000 souls near Orléans, 50 miles south of Paris, there was something surreal, and clearly exhilarating, in realizing that he could now address thousands, and converse live with political big shots. His most memorable moment was a heated tweet clash with two ministers from the Sarkozy government, Valérie Pécresse [Budget Secretary] and Nadine Morano [Minister of Learning and Vocational Training]. "Short of arguments, they ended up sending their 'trolls' to bash me," he recalls with a shrug, unfazed.


That kind of instant exchange with the people in power — French politicians, unlike American ones, usually maintain their own Twitter accounts, and can often get nasty — helps explain the success of this new form of activism. Digital democracy, in France and in other parts of the world, is leveling the playing field. Anyone can become a political actor, rather than simply a consumer of political news. "In March, Twitter's CEO Jack Dorsey came to our headquarters to see how we were working — he came to watch us!" Rémi tells me with starry eyes. "Journalists from traditional media follow us and ask for tips; international media want interviews: we were the news story for them." Militants still go door to door and distribute pamphlets on Sunday markets, but online they are becoming a media force in their own right. "We're not just relaying official sound bites. We're expressing our views. We've built an audience and we're tracking our ratings."


According to Dorsey, Twitter accounts in France have exploded since the beginning of the presidential elections, just as they did in the US in 2008 during the Obama campaign. But Rémi is quick to underscore that occupying the digital world is not enough: social networks are only one way to engage with independent voters, who are the real target of the "Counterpunch Unit" in the first place. Still, social networks are often the first place these modern-day activists identify, locate, and contact undecided voters. Rémi recounts how a 45-year-old man from Corsica joined Twitter just to contact him after having read about him in an online article. The two tweeted back and forth for a while and ended up on the phone doing what French people do as a national pastime: talking politics for hours. And that's the key, and the paradox: "People are more themselves online; they're less guarded. They'll tell you right away who they think of voting for, and then you can have a personalized response." The bonus: other candidates' teams watch the exchange as it happens online, and they freak out. Targeted, tailored, yet collective: that's what makes digital democracy so effective, and why it feels more rather than less personal to activists and voters alike. 


Yet Rémi's most cherished memories all involve flesh-and-blood encounters: he gets teary as he reminisces about François Hollande walking down from the stage at a big political rally and falling into his arms after missing a step. There is some magic in watching numbers go up on Twitter, but it is nothing compared to embracing your idol, drenched in sweat after an hour-long speech.



The image from Election Night that will continue to haunt me is one I could not have foreseen five years ago. It's the usual setting — family circling around the old TV set in the living room, the ritual countdown on the screen, a chilled bottle of champagne ready to be popped open, jittery guests shrieking bad jokes and biting their nails — but this time all of it is multiplied by a cascade of mirroring screens. Vishnu-like, my cousin is simultaneously watching another channel online, slamming on his tweetdeck to his 6,000+ followers, drafting a new text on his political blog, and taking pictures of the TV set with Photo Booth to post online. I'm retweeting him in French and English while Skyping with my husband back in California, pausing every other minute to snap a picture of the modern-day father-son bonding taking place on the couch next to me: my 11-year-old nephew absorbed in a video game next to his father typing with two fingers. All this activity is recorded and streamed live by my sister on her iPhone. (My mom sticks to more vintage French accessories: champagne and cigarette.)


Most pictures we take now include someone taking a picture or typing on some kind of portable device. It's vertiginous. Yet this multiplication of screens and digital surfaces points not to our postmodern superficiality but to an uncanny sense of depth. In that living room turned media echo chamber, we were also hearing the voices of hundreds of friends and complete strangers who were, like us, ranting and commenting on Twitter and blogs about matters of national and global import. As data flashed and beeped every second onto our screens, we felt ourselves part of a gigantic, antsy conversation, all antennae up and buzzing with messages. Not even messages: gut feelings converted into pixels, brain waves turned into texts, an organic flow of words forming under our eyes in the form of tongue-in-cheek hashtags. As if under the spell of electronic pheromones, we could sense what was humming all over Paris, all over France: what fears, what desires, what hopes.


The sense of ubiquity was thrilling. What better moment than Election Night to feel the pulse of the collective, this time buzzing at your fingertips, and in your own home? We got the goosebumps you get from being in a crowd of fellow supporters — without the smashed toes.


In the past, voters used to watch the news. Or they joined crowds in the streets, connected by their ideals, but in effect alone, and anonymous. Now digital activists are making the news, running their own multi-channeled media outlet — and best of all — listening and being heard. They are more than votes; they are voices. As Rémi Sabau pointed out to me, tentatively, and paradoxically: "Digital democracy feels more personal, more... embodied."


Tomorrow the euphoric songs and tweets may well be crushed by the bulldozers of economic realism. But on May 6th, a new breed of digital nightingale chirped all night, their echoes sketching a vast and cozy nest all over France.