The Information Society and Democratic Process

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The Information Society and Democratic Process: A Take on the French Elections

This lecture was given by Véronique Kleck at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University on April 10, 2007, two weeks before the first round of the 2007 French presidential elections.

A podcast of the event is available here.

Some Main Points of the Lecture

Putting the French Elections of 2007 into Context

  • In the past five years, the French electorate has faced three main crises that have had an important impact on French society in general:
    • The success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first turn of the 2002 presidential elections
    • Saying "No" to Europe: rejecting the European constitution in the 2005 referendum
    • A young population with no future in France, problems with joblessness --exemplified by the riots and widespread civil unrest that took place in late 2005
  • 53% of French people believe that their institutional system does not work
  • Concerns regarding joblessness
  • Uncertainty: the number of people still unsure two weeks before the elections had never been higher
  • Traditional media was challenged by online material

Uses of Information Technology in the Political Field

  • A new form of democracy is emerging, a more participatory one
    • Information technology makes a big evolution possible, but it is not clear yet whether the results will be good or bad
    • People can be part of the process anywhere at anytime
    • Some people imagine a seamless democracy with participation on all levels of policy- and decision-making
  • Digital Divide: we see a big divide between political representatives and rest of the population
    • Two groups of people:
      • Those who have the power (political representatives, government)
      • Those who do not have the power but who are active in the network (activists, social movements, journalists)
        • Kleck's book looks at the influence of this second group
    • The main problem is that the digital gap between these two groups of people --elected representatives and citizens-- becomes a cultural gap.
      • Citizens using the network value sharing and cooperation --but the elected representatives are not familiar with these uses
      • When you look at use by elected representatives, they tend to engage primarily in traditional political communications. A few people have websites and even fewer have blogs, but even within this minority of political users, they generally communicate regarding themselves and do not use the network to engage in dialogue or connect with/link to others.
      • Kleck asserts that American politicians interact somewhat more with users, but that in France the cultural divide prevents this.
    • Governments are gradually using information technology more in France as well as in Italy, the UK, and elsewhere.
    • Information technology encompasses more than just what is on-line. In places such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, text-messaging and mobile phones have had a significant impact.

Uses of Information Technology Tools in the 2007 French Presidential Campaign

  • Kleck characterizes the 2007 presidential elections as the first true net campaign in France
  • Prior to 2007:
    • In the 2001 local elections in France, only 1% of candidates maintained websites
    • In the 2002 presidential election, all candidates had websites, but they varied a great deal --from mere electronic posters to more sophisticated animated extravaganzas.
    • After the first turn of the 2002 presidential elections and the success of Le Pen, Internet activity increased significantly as many websites and blogs opposed him.
    • Significant use of the Internet occurred during the 2005 referendum on Europe
    • In 2004, only 7% of the French electorate used the Internet for election information (compare with 30% of American in 2004)
      • In 2007, 15-20% of the French electorate will use the Internet
  • In the 2007 campaign:
    • The Internet is an important source of information, but not the main source of information
    • The Internet is a significant campaign tool in the 2007 elections
      • Sarkozy has spent an estimated 4 million euros on his Internet campaign
      • Ségolène Royal has spent an estimated 2 million on her Internet campaign and another 4 million euros on local organization
  • Blogs provide collective expertise and allow people to check on the information provided by candidates and the traditional media
  • The Internet provides a space for debate
  • Strict limitations on marketing by email in France:
    • "Sarko-Spam" campaign: the UMP sent 3 million emails
      • The campaign was successful: 13-18% of email recipients visited the UMP website and of those, 23% became party members --all for a cost of a mere 100,000 euros.
      • Citizens complained and legislation was passed requiring prior authorization before sending political emails
  • Prohibition on buying key words for the election, such as on Google --the UMP did this in 2005 and it was subsequently outlawed
  • Most people who use the Internet to seek or discuss information regarding the elections are relatively wealthy, urban males
  • Major types of election-related uses of the Internet
    • Most frequent: getting information on the candidates' agendas
    • Second most frequent: sending jokes related to the elections
    • Third most frequent: looking up information on polls
    • Least frequent: participating in discussions and forums online
  • For most people in France, the Internet is still not considered to be a serious source of information
    • 12% of electors believe what they read on the Internet
    • 65% believe what they hear on TV
  • In 2002, Internet users did not vote any differently than non-Internet users


Kleck seems to indicate that French politicians will have a more difficult time than their American counterparts with using the Internet to connect with voters because of a cultural divide. However, French election law is such that candidates are probably forced to find ways to connect with voters on a more intimate level and encourage participation. Strict laws regarding funding and access to traditional media in France mean that money is not the determinant it is American campaigns. Additionally, as noted above, France has already moved quickly to ban unsolicited campaign emails and text messages. Conceivably, French election law may be tweaked to restrict one-way advertisements and spending on online campaigning, resulting in further incentives to develop online communities and encourage active participation by citizens and more actual interaction between candidates and voters.

No such motivation exists in the United States, where externally-imposed funding constraints are not a serious concern. It seems more likely that American candidates' use of the Internet will be as a well-funded supplement to traditional media --e.g., the slick television ads on Mitt Romney's site, the awkwardly staged Q&A of Hilary Clinton, and the hired bloggers of Edwards and others --rather than to truly engage citizens in the electoral process and participatory democracy in general.

Howard Dean's campaign is often cited as a shining example of the potential for involving people online. Putting aside the issue that this may have been a relatively tech-savvy segment of the population that was attracted to Dean in the first place and that it has yet been repeated --it is not clear that the online networking aspect of Dean's campaign did much more than to more efficiently raise money. As more candidates become familiar with internet technologies, it stands to reason that all candidates will become better at networking to raise money, and any advantages a pioneer such as Dean may have garnered by being first, will disappear as everyone catches up.

Already in the run-up to the 2008 American presidential election, candidates are measured by their ability to pass the hat around. The media reports the fundraising success of various candidates and frequently updates with a strange level of detail and wealth is used as a proxy for popularity or the tenability of a candidacy. It seems likely that the Internet portion of one's campaign will become just another place to spend and outdo one's opponent, at least in the primary stage of the campaign.

While, as Kleck notes, the French are still somewhat behind Americans in Internet usage, it seems likely that the French, disallowed from seeking astronomical funding or burying their opponents in the traditional media, the French will likely continue to develop use of the Internet as an interactive campaign tool, truly changing their landscape of political participation.

Additional Resources

Story on familiarizing European MPs with ICT

CES page on the 2007 French elections (This page also contains many useful links to more resources in English)

Blog: A French Election from an American Perspective

Article providing overview of main candidates' websites: France's Internet Election: Internet Playing a Dramatic Role The author suggests that "France is connecting the most modern election that the world has yet seen.'

Online Campaigning Comes Into Its Own in France, May 7, 2007.