Facebook and the French Election of 2012

In France’s first debate using social media to include questions from the public, the questions were smart and on-point, and viewership soared.


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Case Study:
 First European presidential debate to take questions via social media
Country: France
Debate: April 16, 2012

Early in the French presidential campaign season in 2012, a debate took place on the public television program “Mots Croisés” (“Crosswords”) that marked the first time a high-level political debate in Europe featured questions submitted via social media.

Understanding what it took to get to that moment requires knowing some basic rules of French presidential elections, which proceed in two rounds.

In round one, candidates from all parties participate in a series of town halls and television programs around the nation to make their case. A vote is held, and all but the top two candidates are eliminated—unless one candidate achieves more than 50 percent of the vote, in which case the election is over. Assuming two finalists remain, one televised debate is held before the second—and final—vote.

A government agency, the Superior Audiovisual Council (Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel, or CSA) governs political campaign communications on radio and television. Wielding the combined power of the Federal Communications Commission and the Commission on Presidential Debates, the CSA and its staff of independent civil servants establish rules that the debates must follow. The rules for the second-round televised debate, issued once every five years by the CSA’s cadre of France’s famously conservative government bureaucrats—the “fonctionnaires”—are quite rigid.

The first-round debates are more open to innovation, which is why social media was permitted during the debate held April 16 on France 2, a state-owned television network. The debate included all 10 of the major presidential candidacies. Five of the candidates, including the two main frontrunners—incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, president of the Corrèze General Council—were represented by campaign officials.

Since candidates can qualify for the first round of the campaign by gathering only 500 signatures from France’s 47,000 local elected officials, journalists and broadcasters are required to devote disproportionate time and resources to fringe candidates. Even the president of the CSA, Michel Boyon, said in an interview that his agency’s rules have “impoverished” the political climate in the country.

As an example, he cited the fact that “one third of the [television] time [was] devoted to candidates who received a total of 4.1 percent support in the last election.”

Unlike U.S. television networks that arranged presidential primary candidates on stage based on their performance in recent polls, France 2 arranged the candidates in alphabetical order. CSA rules require that each candidate receive an equal amount of speaking time by the end of a debate; the candidates had a large stopwatch below each of their names so they could all see how long each of them had spoken.

Other attempts at even-handedness yielded odd results. After each question was asked, for example, moderator Yves Calvi, a French journalist, would pick names out of a box to determine the order in which the candidates would respond, regardless of relevance or the candidate’s attention to the topic.

For one week preceding the debate, France 2 conducted a poll on its website and Facebook page to determine the debate topics. The top responses included such hotly contested domestic policy concerns as the national debt, employment, immigration, and nuclear energy. By contrast, the topics addressed during the second-round debate were less sharply focused and included “horse race” questions favored by the press that look at the state of the campaign rather than issues of concern to the electorate.

questions for French presidential candidates

France 2 also asked Facebook users to submit questions for the candidates. More than 3,000 questions were posted to a dedicated platform developed by the French company Brainsonic. Network staff picked 10 of the questions, one for each candidate, and those questions were asked during the debate. To further engage the public, France 2 worked with Facebook to create an app that would allow users to stream the debate, comment during the show, and discuss the debate with other viewers on Facebook.

These efforts were a significant departure from 2011, when the CSA, citing a statute prohibiting the promotion of corporations during news broadcasts, banned the networks from even mentioning Facebook and Twitter on the air.

Facebook users’ comments were reviewed during the program, and in several instances the candidates were asked to respond in real time. In one such sequence, a commenter on Facebook asked Eva Joly of the Green Party which part of the military her party intended to cut to address the national debt.

Joly replied $20 billion euros would be cut from the nuclear arsenal. Another commenter suggested this was impossible, a point the moderator brought up on air, forcing Joly to break down how she proposed to squeeze $20 billion euros out of the nuclear arsenal without crippling it.

The one and only second-round debate took place on May 2, four days before the final election. It was broadcast on France’s most popular channel, the privately owned TF1, and on France 2, along with three smaller cable news channels. The debate drew at least 19.5 million viewers.

Perhaps encouraged by the use of social media introduced during the April 16 debate, the French public tracked the debate on social media without the cooperation of the government or broadcasters. Using the hashtags #voteHollande and #avecSarkozy, and #ledebat for the debate itself, voters expressed their opinions on both Facebook and Twitter.

Unlike the April debate, however, the discussion was limited mainly to voters’ talking with their friends and followers. (The campaigns of Sarkzoy and Hollande also posted updates to the candidates’ Twitter accounts, boosting or refuting comments.)

Both major parties, as well as the CSA, had feared that involving social media in 2012 would make for an unnecessarily disorderly debate. In interviews, representatives of the CSA and France 2 said they expected social media and other technologies enabling voter involvement to play a much bigger role in the next presidential election. One CSA executive said that he would be “extremely shocked” if the second-round debate in 2017 did not feature a major social media component.

A spokesperson for Facebook said the company works with broadcasters and government officials to provide streaming and real-time discussion tools for debate viewers around the world, enabling increased viewership and giving users the feeling that “they’ve got more skin in the game” and are “more directly involved in the process.”

The anecdotal evidence of the April 2012 debate suggests that the use of social media during debates has the potential to inspire more civic engagement in the electoral process. Questions from voters—and follow-up questions to unsatisfactory candidate responses—used to be limited to local, town hall settings. New debate formats are inspiring the search for other ways that technology might serve to connect voters to the electoral process.

The statistical evidence is even more compelling. Thanks at least in part to audience outreach and participation, viewership of the April 16 debate reached a first-round record of 1.4 million people, and a record 15 percent share of the audience for that time period, according to France 2.

Based on those numbers, it seems a medium embraced most emphatically by the young may be more than incidental to the continuing vitality of democracy in France.

With additional reporting by Christine Cupaiuolo.

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