During the 2017 French presidential election, Emmanuel Macron was the darling of digital democracy. With his calls for a “startup nation,” the future head of state placed technology at the centre not only of his programme but also of his campaign.
The now-president’s digital performance in the run-up to this year’s election has been much less clear-cut. It’s left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon who’s been trying to push the technological envelope, going so far as to appear in the form of a hologram, while Macron concentrated on shifting his programme to the right. And while he still leads in the polls, his margin is slipping. Indeed, five years after Macron took office, far-right candidates have been more effective than Macron at exploiting the Internet and social networks.
In the newly published book L’illusion de la démocratie numérique. Internet est-il de droite? (EPFL Press), I argue that conservatives dominate online. While the Internet may have been a key part of left-leaning movements, such as the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, the right dominates the online world thanks to factors such as its popular bases, hierarchical organisations, capital, as well as social inequality. The French presidential elections are a case in point.
The French Internet: a political genealogy
But before we turn to the current elections, it is worth revisiting French politics’ digital history. France is no newcomer to digital politics, with the egalitarian use of the 1980s pre-web French Minitel computers for political information paving the way to current global networks. Imagining the early web as a bastion of left-leaning French politics led by Macron is overly simplistic, though, as the National Front was the first political party in France to have a web presence, as well as an army of trolls working behind the scenes.
But it would be a mistake to view Le Pen’s support as artificial or top-down. She has been the sleeper in this current election, pulling ahead in the polls. While digital media eyes were on Zemmour, Le Pen boasts a strong base of support throughout the country, both online and offline. From Facebook groups, Twitter, down to WhatsApp channels, she dominates her rival. Despite extensive coverage in international media outlets, the former Figaro columnist has fewer than 400,000 Twitter followers, versus 2.7 million in the case of Le Pen.
Zemmour and Le Pen
Both have launched their campaigns amid a rightward turn of French politics, as voters increasingly resent the gap between their purchasing power and that of previous generations. While Zemmour and Le Pen have both clearly capitalised on such sentiments, scapegoating immigrants subtly or explicitly, there are differences between them.
Throughout his campaign, Zemmour has deployed an openly Islamophobic rhetoric that closely mirrored that of a research project tracking online anti-Muslim hatred between 2018 and 2020. Zemmour’s movement, Reconquête (“Reconquer”) echoes the theme of a supposed “invasion” by immigrants that marked the 2016 US presidential campaign. Like former US president Donald Trump, Zemmour asserts the need to make France “great again”.
Le Pen also privileges imagery celebrating “traditional France”, including its agricultural heritage. Unlike Zemmour, she has confined most of her speeches to bread-and-butter issues, directly appealing to much of the working-class and rural gilets jaunes base. The movement started out in 2018 as a fuel-tax occupations in mostly small towns stopping traffic and morphed into a series of mostly urban marches. Once focused on cost-of-living issues, the protesters’ demands became diverse and sometimes contradictory ideologically, and the movement lost steam in late 2019 when the pandemic hit.
Too many people on the left present right-wing leaders as puppet masters and downplay the role of organised people on the ground. The fantasy is that by somehow getting rid of these leading online influencers, whether Zemmour or Le Pen, or even Putin or Trump, that the right-wing digital base will disappear.
The reality is in fact the opposite. These leaders built their movements on existing networks and groups. These include everything from the far-right component of the gilets jaunes to Civitas, Action Française, and even elements of the Catholic Church. Institutions like these are more likely to have a solid network of political supporters that are in constant communication, as well as have dedicated armies of volunteers to post and promote online content relevant to its members.
This finding of the role of organisations, and especially what I found in the United States in how hierarchical organisations dominated online as opposed to the myth of horizontal digital activism. Simply put, conservative groups are more likely to be hierarchical, as compared to many of those on the left, and this enables more online engagement.
A media ecosystem benefiting the far right
But it is not just individual groups peppered throughout France, or any other country, that enable conservative digital activism. Key to the circulation of social media information is how these groups work in sync with an ecosystem of other like-minded organisations. As in the United States, conservative media outlets are growing in France: the far-right media empire of Vincent Bolloré includes CNews, which propelled Zemmour into the nightly TV spotlight, while the media conglomerate of Bernard Arnault pushes free-market ideas. And the content they produce and personalities they promote feed directly into conservative social-media feeds, despite – and because of – conservative claims that the media censors them.
By contrast, the left in France is fragmented and does not work as effectively as the far right does with all types of media outlets. This has a direct relationship with what works – and doesn’t – in terms of virality on social media. Conservative conceptions of freedom play better on platforms that favour simplistic, short, and provocative posts, whether it is “freedom” from immigrant “invasions” or from “mask mandates.” The left focuses more on principles such as fairness, and the messages are inherently more nuanced and dispersed. Whether it is the environment, gender rights, anti-racism, or LGBTQ+ issues, the broad coalition of ideas can lead to fuzzy messaging. So in today’s digital era, the left has a bigger hill to climb, and France is no exception.
So this is how ideology, even in its own right, fuels the digital activism gap I found in my research in why conservatives dominate online.
Now for the last factor that we also see in France: inequality. The Internet was supposed to be a place where everyone can come together on the same playing field, but this is not the case. But how does this map onto the French working-class increasingly voting for Le Pen?
As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Not included in polls of Le Pen’s working-class base are the members of the working-class who do not vote or those who are not citizens and thus can’t vote. As it is defined in surveys, the working class in France also does not include other low-wage workers or those unable to work. The digital divide in access and skills, for example, is still strong in France, especially in rural areas. The cliche of far-right supporters is that they are duped, uninformed, and uneducated, but in my research and with Zemmour’s base, it’s key to see the dominance of middle to upper-class “well-educated” voters that he has captured.
The right’s big money
Questions have also swirled around who may be financing Zemmour’s glitzy campaign of slick posters, synced social media, and well-orchestrated rallies. Certainly, conservatives are more likely to have these resources, both individually and organisationally. And this kind of big money is key to digital production of online content, but it does not automatically result in digital participation. It takes people on the ground who believe and support these far-right philosophies to keep the social media content flowing. It is not just individual supporters. Political organisations, whether parties or civil society groups, that have a lot of resources can harness the power of platform algorithms by paying staff (or trolls) to engage online or can afford the high-tech software and other gadgets to sustain digital participation.
The result, then, of differences in institutions, ideologies, and inequalities offline is a dominance of the far right online. The bottom line is that offline power results in online power, and with conservatives having and gaining power, it is an uphill battle for those on the left.
Created in 2007 to help accelerate and share scientific knowledge on key societal issues, the Axa Research Fund has been supporting nearly 600 projects around the world conducted by researchers from 54 countries. To learn more, visit the site of the Axa Research Fund.