Twitter can’t be gagged, even in France

twitterfranceThe first round in the French presidential election ended yesterday with the result that Socialist Party challenger François Hollande narrowly edged in front of incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy by the slim margin of just over 1 percent of the vote. Both men will compete in a second round run-off, due to be held on May 6; the result will determine who will be the next President of France.

As you’d expect, the country was abuzz with commentary, opinion and talk of every type. Non-stop media coverage added to the talk in neighbourhood cafes and bars across the land and in the virtual equivalents online.

In all, exactly what you expect to see in a contemporary democratic society at election time where you have so many means at your disposal to communicate your views; you certainly don’t leave all the talking to the mainstream media as was the case in elections past. And people like to talk!

So it’s been quite interesting to observe the collision that happened yesterday where people’s desire to talk, and their unfettered ability to do so with tools like Twitter, came up against the legal rigidity of control and a 1977 electoral law that prohibits anyone talking about the possible result of the poll before 8pm France time, ie, when the polls closed. Infractors faced fines of €75,000 (roughly £61,000 or $98,000).

You can  instantly see the dilemma for French law-enforcers, can’t you? When enacted 35 years ago, this law – sieve-like in today’s globally-connected world – was designed to prevent traditional media companies in France from using things like exit polls to speculate on possible outcomes before the polls closed and, so, potentially influencing voters.

What about anyone not in France, you may wonder. Well, exactly – a French law won’t apply to them. That’s something we have experience of in the UK – think about the Ryan Giggs Twitter fiasco last summer where a legal ruling in England stifled talk, but it couldn’t work in Scotland (or anywhere else).

Not only that, though, people’s behaviours have shifted dramatically over the past decade, where if you can do something, you tend to do it whatever a law that seems out of touch with things might say, especially if thousands of people do it. So thousands of people in France with Twitter accounts took to the ether to talk about the election from days earlier never mind after 8pm on Sunday.

The result was a Gallic delight with a very English-like approach to the matter where humour played a huge role.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

[...] On Friday, rebellious Internet bloggers began laying the foundations of subversion by developing codes to circumvent the ban on publishing results before it is time.

So, if your French friend tweets “the Netherlands are beating Hungary at half time,” he may actually mean that Socialist Party candidate François Hollande has emerged from the first round of the election with a lead on French President Nicolas Sarkozy – who has Hungarian roots.

Likewise, the red of a tomato is a reference to far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and his Communist backers. And Flan refers to Flanby, a wobbly flan-like dessert that has become a nickname for Socialist Party candidate François Hollande.

The New York Times adds:

[...] Twitter users marked their posts with the hashtag #RadioLondres, or Radio London, in homage to the first president of modern France, Charles de Gaulle, who as a resistance leader broadcast rallying messages from London during World War II.

The French Twitter community took its cue – and its numbers – from foreign news outlets, especially those in neighboring Switzerland and Belgium, which laughed off the French regulations as absurd and outdated and published preliminary results Sunday evening as soon as they had them, around 6:30 Paris time.

Inundated with Internet traffic, much of it presumably from France, the Web site of the Belgian public broadcaster RTBF was devoted exclusively to French electoral results on Sunday evening.

And Reuters notes:

[...] The march of communications technology has made the law look increasingly like the Maginot Line of anti-tank defences which France, bloodied by World War One, built on its border with Germany. It failed to prevent Hitler’s troops simply driving around the barrier and invading – through Belgium – in 1940.

I wonder what things will look like in the run-off day on May 6. Keeping an eye on #RadioLondres.

And, as we like to say on Google Translate, Twitter ne peut pas être bâillonné, même pas en France.

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About Neville Hobson

Entrepreneurial business communicator with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Co-host of the weekly business podcast For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report. Also an occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.