France voted on Sunday to elect 544 representatives to the National Assembly, out of a total of 577. Thirty-six representatives had already been voted in after the first round of elections on June 10. The turnout was low (at just under 56%), reflecting voter fatigue as the legislative elections came just one month after the presidential election. Socialists and affiliated parties garnered nearly 55% of the votes, thus giving the center-left absolute control of the lower house.
Ségolène Royal and Jack Lang, two major figures of the Socialist party, were defeated, as were center-right party leaders François Bayrou and Nadine Morano, a former member of the Sarkozy administration. The far-right National Front got two seats, a first since 1997. One of them was won by 22-year-old law student Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, niece to the far right party leader, Marine Le Pen. The far left Leftist Front won ten seats, a figure considered to be disappointing by party leaders. Hollande’s solid majority in the lower house has to be seen against a background where Socialists also control the Senate and most regional and local authorities. This gives the President a strong mandate to implement his reform agenda, without having to rely on alliances with the hardline Leftist Front.
During the campaign, the use of social networks predictably intensified, but with a somewhat surprising twist, since Twitter became a major tool. Among the uninterrupted flow of tweets from politicians on the campaign trail about their upcoming meetings before the election run-off, and countless laudatory messages about voters and allies, a few controversial ones stand out. Here are two examples:
On June 13th, Nadine Morano, a former member of the Sarkozy administration, was called over the phone by comedian Gérard Dahan, posing as the far right National Front deputy-leader, Louis Aliot. In the course of the conversation, Morano defined National Front leader Marine Le Pen as “very talented,” thus expressing support for a party that up until now had been kept firmly outside the pale by her center right allies. Former Prime Minister François Fillon chided her on Twitter, writing that “she should have hung up. One doesn’t talk to a National Front leader.” Morano lashed back that Fillon was no longer her boss, and that she would speak with whomever she chose. Tweets of support abounded for each of the politicians involved.
A day earlier, another tweet had caused an even greater stir: Valérie Trierweiler, President Hollande’s partner, had tweeted a message of support to Olivier Falorni, that read: “Words of encouragement to Olivier Falorni who has not been undeserving, and who has been fighting alongside the inhabitants of La Rochelle for many years.” This would sound like a pretty tame message, except for its context. The Socialist party, with Hollande’s backing, had chosen to impose Segolène Royal’s candidacy in La Rochelle. Local Socialist candidate Falorni refused what he saw as the authoritarian decision of the party machine, stood against her, and was promptly excluded from the party, a development that only increased his already widespread support among La Rochelle’s population. Falorni won by a wide margin.
The reason why it is difficult to dismiss this as mere party politics is due to the identity of the Tweeters. Trierweiler is said to be deeply hostile to Royal, Hollande’s partner for 30 years and the mother of his four children. Publicly supporting Royal’s opponent in complete opposition to the President’s choices thus becomes an act of private, and not only political, defiance.
These two incidents raise several questions, the first one being: Why choose Twitter for political pronouncements? Its 140-character limit would seem to preclude the possibility of expressing anything more than simple declarative statements. Yet, it is exactly the opposite that seems to happen. Statements are pared down to their bare essentials, thus making tweets very similar to their ancestor, the soundbite. Unlike the short statements on TV, however, a tweet has a degree of permanence and can be endlessly re-tweeted. Hence Twitter can become an effective arena for politicians to spark controversies and to fuel them over a long period of time.
Moreover, in the two examples quoted above, the original tweets elicited responses from other politicians. François Fillon commented on Morano’s tweet; Valerie Pecresse, another former member of the Sarkozy administration, tweeted right back after Trierweiler’s message of encouragement to Falorni, asking “Is it a fake?” This shows that Tweeter now is a platform for exchanges between politicians of opposing parties. Such direct dialogues, unmediated by party machines, spin doctors, or TV presenters, are valued by an electorate that is ever-more suspicious of pre-packaged press releases. The Trierweiler case thus acquired even more importance precisely because it had not been approved beforehand by any party authority.
There is another reason why the Trierweiler tweet had such an impact. Drawing as it did on widely shared rumors of strained relationships between Royal and Trierweiler, it made manifest the blurring of the boundaries between public and private life that characterizes modern campaigns. Seeing private life issues bleeding into public life anchored the presidential couple into the ‘normalcy’ Hollande keeps hammering about, but it also made for a mixture of fascination and repulsion among voters, complete with comments about Trierweiler’s meddling in public affairs without any mandate. Of such stuff are riveting stories made.
For all that, we still have to keep in mind that Twitter campaigns remain utterly dependent on traditional news outlets acting as an echo chamber. If we take re-tweeting figures as an index of notoriety, we find out that Trierweiler’s message was re-tweeted nearly 6,000 times as of June 18th, while Morano’s re-tweeting figures never go beyond the 700 mark, as is the case for most other politicians. Large as such figures may loom on Twitter, they are puny compared to the audience of more traditional media. Twitter’s power does not reside in its audience, but in its agenda-setting function.
Journalists now crawl Twitter for newsworthy items which politicians are only too happy to provide, but it is only thanks to the mainstream press that they become known to a wide public.