French politicians turn to YouTube as presidential race heats up

YouTube | French politicians (clockwise from top left) Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Florian Philippot, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Benoît Hamon address voters on their YouTube channels.

French politicians are increasingly turning to social media as the 2017 presidential race heats up, with YouTube being the latest frontier explored by rival camps. FRANCE 24 asked French political vlogger Jean Massiet to grade the performances.


France’s key election is fast approaching, with the first round of the poll scheduled for April 23. More than a dozen candidates are expected to join the race, each trying to stand out in the crowded field.

The radical left-wing politician Jean Luc-Mélenchon and the Eurosceptic leader Nicolas Dupont-Aignan were among the first French presidential hopefuls to build support for their campaigns on YouTube.

Far-right politician Florian Philippot last week also launched a dedicated channel on the video-sharing platform, vowing to give online audiences “a backstage pass” to candidate Marine Le Pen’s presidential campaign.

Philippot, who is widely credited with modernising and legitimatising Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Front party, was the subject of massive ridicule on social media platforms as soon as his first video was uploaded.

“The backdrop is overdone, he doesn’t come across as natural, and his coffee cup is empty,” the YouTube vlogger Jean Massiet told FRANCE 24, explaining where the far-right politician’s YouTube debut went wrong.

Massiet, 28, has attracted an enviable following as one of the few French political observers on YouTube. On his channel “Accropolis” he comments on parliamentary sessions, rising political stars and the main issues of the presidential race.

In 2015 he launched Accropolis – the double C is intentional and meant to suggest the channel is for French politics “addicts” (which translates as "accro" in French) – and has since watched numerous politicians join the YouTube bandwagon.

Not your ordinary YouTuber

Philippot, a political surrogate for Le Pen, decided to host his first YouTube video from the cafeteria of Marine's campaign headquarters. The scenery includes a canary-yellow table, a vintage fridge, a fake petrol pump and a coffee machine that was apparently broken.

Anticipating the criticism, Philippot was the first to remark that the décor was more suitable for a 1980s high-school sitcom. Sipping from a mug that's obviously empty, he explained future videos would show the inner workings of the campaign and feature special guests.

National Front party VP Florian Philippot on his YouTube channel
National Front party VP Florian Philippot on his YouTube channel

“YouTubers are usually people who are not invited on television, which is not the case with Philippot,” Massiet remarked, admitting he was surprised the far-right politician, a regular on France’s news talk-show circuit, had chosen to launch his own channel. “This detail did not go unnoticed by regular YouTube users who blasted [Philippot] for wandering into their territory.”

While many people gave the video a thumbs-down, it still garnered wide attention, claiming hundreds-of-thousands of views in just a few days. At least in this regard, Philippot’s foray into YouTube appears to have been a success.

Adopting YouTube culture

In terms of views, the leftist candidate Mélenchon is easily leading the pack, even if recent opinion polls show he would claim only around 13 percent of votes in the first-round. Since November, Mélenchon – who represents his own Left Party and the French Communist Party in the presidential race – has uploaded more than a dozen “Week in Review” videos, each surpassing more than 100,000 views.

“He’s improved a lot,” said the vlogger Massiet. “At the beginning his videos were very ‘last-century’, he used very traditional political language. But little by little, he has started sharing his doubts and opening up more personally to his followers, and it’s starting to pay off.”

French radical left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon on his YouTube channel
French radical left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon on his YouTube channel

The backdrop of Mélenchon’s videos change constantly. An old plant or a campaign poster hastily tacked on a wall serve as the only props. “He’s the candidate who has best adopted the YouTube culture. Sparse decoration, no make-up, simple lighting, an interview from the couch. These are the codes Youtubers use to convey realness, because we’re done with the overproduced TV of our parents’ generation,” Massiet said.

The online video host noted that Mélenchon had also understood the importance of interacting with his online community, who in some ways replace the journalists of the past. “Real YouTubers listen, reply, ask for comments and adapt their programmes based on that feedback,” Massiet said, praising Mélenchon for his regular “Frequently Asked Questions” uploads.

Drop the tie

Candidates from France’s main left-wing presidential primary are running very traditional political campaigns, so far mostly ignoring the social media platforms like YouTube to reach out to voters.

Arnaud Montebourg, a protectionist candidate among France’s ruling Socialists, had only uploaded a few videos from past speeches. Furthermore, in an effort to be consistent with his calls to buy products and services “Made in France”, he has chosen YouTube’s French competitor – Daily Motion – as the host platform for his online videos. This choice has saved him from being called a hypocrite, but has also drastically limited his reach to a few-dozen channel subscribers.

Socialist Party member Benoit Hamon on his YouTube channel
Socialist Party member Benoit Hamon on his YouTube channel

Benoît Hamon, considered on the left-wing branch of the Socialists, was the first presidential hopeful from his party to fully embrace YouTube. In early 2016 he uploaded a handful of videos highlighting his political endorsements, but starting in December he began addressing the camera directly.

Massiet said despite being first from the starting gate, Hamon still had a lot to learn about how to speak to voters on YouTube. “On YouTube we talk as if we were having drinks with a friend. Benoît Hamon always wears a tie. It’s a mistake,” he said. He nevertheless praised the short format chosen by Hamon, whose videos never exceed three minutes in duration.

'I'm unpopular'

Similarly, among the mainstream right, there are few politicians who have embraced YouTube.

Anti-EU leader Nicolas Dupont-Aignan on his YouTube channel
Anti-EU leader Nicolas Dupont-Aignan on his YouTube channel

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, an independent anti-EU candidate, is among the few to have launched his own YouTube channel, but his videos are riddled with mistakes, according to Massiet.

The politics commentator criticised the long and monotonous speaking style. “Without any editing, he’s really going to turn people off,” Massiet said.

An even worse mistake, Dupont-Aignan has masked the number of his channel’s subscribers. “It’s very much looked down upon within the YouTube community. It effectively means ‘I’m unpopular’,” warned Massiet.

As for conservative François Fillon, who won the presidential nomination for France’s main-opposition Les Républicains party in November, his YouTube channel contains over 200 videos, but only in two of those does he address viewers directly.

Right-wing presidential nominee François Fillon on his YouTube channel
Right-wing presidential nominee François Fillon on his YouTube channel

The second of the two candid videos was uploaded on December 31 and features Fillon wishing French citizens a happy New Year. The backdrop, shelves stacked with books and a large wooden desk, are obviously meant to evoke a presidential office.

For Massiet, it is yet another sign that France’s presidential candidates are struggling to find their way in the new frontiers of mass media. “Do they really want to do politics differently, or do they see YouTube as a passing phenomenon that will dissolve when the campaign ends?” he asked.

This article was translated from its
original in French.

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