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French presidential candidates fight for youth vote on TikTok

Dressed in a suit and tie, President Emmanuel Macron posted his first TikTok video in July 2020. From the manicured gardens of the Elysèe Palace, he congratulated high school students who had just received their final exam results.

Less than 24 hours later, political opponent Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), joined him on the platform. Striking a different tone, Mélenchon stood on the street outside République metro in Paris and played for laughs, poking fun at himself and the president by quoting lyrics from French R&B singer Wejdene.

In 2022, the social media network is now becoming a new battleground for the next presidential election.

Along with Mélenchon, confirmed candidates Valérie Pécresse (right-wing candidate for Les Républicains, or Republicans), Eric Zemmour (far-right, independent candidate), Marine le Pen (far-right candidate for Rassemblement National, or National Rally) and Yannick Jadot (candidate for Europe Ecologie Les Verts, or Green Party) have all joined TikTok in the past year.

They are not the only newcomers. A surge in use in 2020 has propelled the platform towards becoming one of the most popular apps in France in a remarkably short space of time.

Five years after it launched in 2017, TikTok now has more than 6 million visitors per day in France, all scrolling through short videos aiming “to inspire creativity and bring joy”, according to the company mantra.

Dance routines, quirky stunts and humour, often set to music or an audio clip, are ubiquitous and reel in a predominantly young audience, with 75 percent of French users aged under 24, according to figures from Statista.

A third of TikTok users in France may be under voting age but “that means two thirds can vote, and that’s still millions of people”, Paul Smith, associate professor in French politics at the University of Nottingham, told FRANCE 24.

“It’s going to be a very close election and a social media presence is absolutely vital.”

Fighting for votes

Motivating younger voters on the platform is not a given, but even a small number of votes at this stage could make a significant difference.  Polls have widely predicted that Macron will win the first round, but the competition for second place is fierce. “It could come down to half a million votes, or similar,” Smith said.

There is also a feeling that it’s all to play for among young voters. Traditionally loyal to the left, polls over the last few years have shown younger generations drifting towards the right. In 2022, Smith said, “they’re an electorate that may actually be more open to changing opinions than older voters”.

Of all candidates, Macron (who has not yet confirmed that he will run for a second presidential term) has the largest reach on TikTok, with 2.8 million followers and more than 18 million likes for his posts. Since his first buttoned-up video, he has made an effort to present an image better suited to a younger audience, dressing down in polo shirts and holding the camera selfie-style.

As a young president keen to align himself with tech, the platform suits him and his cabinet. His Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari (15.4 total likes) has become an unexpected star on the platform due to his improbable ability to blend humour and online trends with transport announcements.

In a similar vein, Mélenchon (9.6 million likes) has continued to embrace the casual tone of the platform, alternating between posting political speeches and videos that humorously skewer his rivals.

This is not a surprising strategy for a candidate who “has really pushed the technological envelope in all kinds of interesting ways”, Smith said. You Tube videos featured heavily in Mélenchon’s 2017 election campaign, during which he also hosted a meeting where he appeared simultaneously in cities around France as a hologram.

A new kind of campaign

Mélenchon’s engagement with TikTok has reaped rewards: Since September, his follower count has increased threefold, now totalling over 1 million.

Zemmour and Le Pen have multiplied their followers at a similarly rapid rate since autumn 2021, although their overall counts remain in the low hundreds of thousands.

Zemmour has taken a scattergun approach, posting over 100 videos in different styles. “He comes from the media so he’s very comfortable with that kind of setting,” Smith said. But rather than overtly political content, his most popular post by far (with 5.4 million views) is a 14-second clip of the candidate at a bowling alley hitting a strike.

Le Pen has posted just 13 videos since she joined in October 2021. Similarly, the most popular (with 4 million views) features one of her cats hiding in a Christmas tree.

Others are less at ease on the platform. Left-wing candidate for the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party), Anne Hidalgo, has no official TikTok profile. Pécresse and Jadot have posted little more than a handful of official-looking videos with a few hundred views each.

“It comes down to something as simple as, does it suit their character? Are they at ease? And the answer is, they’re not, really,” Smith said.

While these candidates may focus on more traditional campaign methods for now, it is possible they will have to increase engagement with the platform in the future.

Covid restrictions are fast becoming a political football set to disrupt in-person interactions with voters in the run up to the election.

Le Pen’s party has said it will oppose laws passed by Macron’s government and continue to hold rallies with more than 2,000 people indoors without asking for proof of vaccination. Even so, a Rassemblement National rally scheduled for mid-January in Reims has been pushed back to February for health reasons.

Meanwhile, Mélenchon plans to hand out FFP2 masks to encourage supporters to attend his rallies, and Pécresse has accepted that numbers will be limited.

In this context, TV, radio and social media could play an even more important role in swaying voter opinion than they have in previous elections. “It may turn out that by April, that’s where the campaign is being fought,” Smith said.