On Thursday it was John Thornhill in the FT, then yesterday Stephen Castle of the Independent joined in. Topic du jour: the battle in cyberspace for the hearts and minds of the French voters.
Conspiracy Theory One: the US administration wants Europe to adopt the constitutional treaty because it would kill off nation states and allow Washington to deal with a more pliable Brussels.
Conspiracy Theory Two: the Bush administration is secretly financing the No campaign in France because it wants to kill off Europe’s ambitions to forge a common foreign policy and rival the US on the world stage.
Financial Times Thursday 28 April
One says that a vote for the EU constitution would please George Bush; another uses a computer game format with arrows from a “yes” vote to a “game over” box. Not only are French opponents of the EU constitution ahead in the opinion polls they are also winning the battle of the blogs.
Independent Saturday 30 April
Now apart from a striking similarity in the way these two journalists choose to introduce their topic, two other coincidences of opinion immediately seem to suggest themselves: first bloggers seem to be typecast as frontline conspiracy theorists, and second blogging is currently attracting readership and attention like never before in France, with this months referendum serving as the launch ramp. Unsurprisingly references to Howard Dean’s presidential canditate campaign abound.
Now, availing ourselves of the advantage of hindsight over the longer term impact of the Dean campaign, could we draw any reasonable conclusions about the future of the above mentioned ‘cyber phenomenon’ in France? I think we can. Indeed I think it might be possible to break the likely process down into a number of ‘stylised’ facts.
The first of these would be that the process will be typified by an initial ‘discovery’ of the power of the medium. The second would be that this will produce a kind of ‘spike’ in use and attention, where in fact far more importance is attached to the phenomenon than is really merited at this stage of the game. Then the third would be the arrival of an almost inevitable reaction backlash where presumed ambitions which were always unrealistic get widely trashed, and political blogging almost written off as a failure. Finally a new phase opens during which blogging consolidates itself (the so called ‘maturity’ phase). Here growth is slower and less spectacular, but at the same time a role is carved out for blogging. Typically during this phase those ‘in the know’ share a consensus view that long term the phenomenon will be important, it’s just that nobody is quite sure what this importance will be. This I take it is where US blogging is today.
With four weeks to go until France’s crucial verdict on the EU constitution in a national referendum, Europe’s political elite are coming to terms with a new fact: the battle may yet be won and lost in cyberspace.
(In France) As elsewhere, the internet is throwing up some lurid interpretations of reality. But there is no doubt it is also playing an influential role in France’s passionate debate on the constitution, ahead of the referendum on May 29.
…….. the No camp has remained firmly ahead in the polls. Part of its popularity is precisely because it is anti-establishment.
But its support also owes much to the informational reach and mobilising power of the internet. While the Yes campaign has overwhelmed its opponents in the mainstream media, the No campaign is omnipresent on the web, the worldwide domain of dissidence.
I have no doubt that these views vastly overemphasise the role of blogging in opinion formation in the great Consitution debate (especially among grass roots ‘no’ voters like those undoubtedly to be found in places like Robert Gu?diguian’s sentimentally romanticised Marseille quartier of L’Estaque) – indeed some might feel they are able to sense here one of those ‘lurid interpretations of reality’ which apparently are so characteristic of bloggers (something which Gu?diguian would also be guilty of, but then he has an artist’s licence).
I also have no doubt that blogging is carving out a space for itself in France, and the referendum is surely facilitating this. One additional indication of this changing reality would be the fact that at least two major national newspapers (Le Monde and Lib?ration) now sponsor blogging sections in their online editions.
One last snippet of interest: after a very slow start when compared with the UK or Scandinavia internet useage in France continues to increase steadily with 40% of the population now considering themselves internet users. Perhaps more significantly this month the number of ADSL connections for the first timesurpassed the number of dial-up ones. I am reminded of a historic precedent here: during the first half of the 19th century France proved to be remarkably laggard in the uptake of the new technologies of the industrial revolution when compared with (say) the UK or the Netherlands. In the second half of the century this situation was, of course, turned on its head. Will history once more repeat itself?