An Interview with Nicholas Vanbremeersch: A Blog Pioneer in France

I recently met with Nicholas Vanbremeersch while he was over in the US with a group of French political strategists here to determine the 2008 lessons of success, from the Obama campaign and the Democrats. He's one of the premiere bloggers involved with online politics in France, so I asked if he'd do a Q & A follow-up with me to post here.

This is a first of many series, interviewing bloggers that are outside the US, so if there is a particular blogger that you'd like me to line up, let me know in the comments or via email.

Onto Nicholas, whom I think you'll find has insights below that are worth the read.

How did you first begin blogging?

I started like nearly everybody, reading blogs, then commenting, and then deciding that having my own blog would be even better.

I started reading blogs in 2001/2002, and was, at first, particularly interested in the post-9/11 debate and the war in Iraq. Then I started reading and commenting on American blogs, mainly from the liberal blogosphere, such as MyDD, Kevin Drum, DailyKos, Atrios, Josh Marshall, Matthew Yglesias, and others, who were pioneers and figures in blogging, such as Andrew Sullivan, Instapundit, Crooked Timber or Daniel Drezner... I still read these blogs (though less frequently, and I've added a lot of other sources). They have taught me how to blog, and how to comment on the news through the web.

I launched my blog in march, 2003, in French, covering French politics and international affairs. I was quite a pioneer at the time in France. There were not a lot of good blogs about politics in France. I then quite quickly started an addiction to blogging, and became a figure in the French blogosphere, initiating many projects or practices. I created a collective weblog about the European constitution (publius.fr), a rendezvous of political bloggers (la République des blogs) which gathers political bloggers in a dozen of cities, and participated in many premieres, like the first blogger-coverage of a political convention.

Tell us about your further political involvement beyond blogging?

I started my political involvement before blogging. In 2001/2002, at the same time as I was discovering American blogs, I joined l'ami public, a political grassroots organization that tried to foster Christian Blanc's candidacy for the 2002 presidential election (he was a center-left former CEO). It was the only genuine grassroots campaign on the web at the time. It was mainly done via one forum and newsgroups, with no central organization. 15,000 people joined the movement through the web. I started posting messages, and ended up being a candidate for parliament in June. I gathered 1.74%, which was quite fair, considering I was absolutely unknown at the time.

After a few years of blogging, I decided to move away from partisan politics, and focus on making change happen elsewhere, i.e. in the web public sphere. I thought a good blog on the EU referendum in 2005 would do more to inform and mobilize citizens than to go into meetings or throw papers in the streets. And it did. The web was decisive in the 2005 referendum. I was in favor of the "yes" to the EU constitution, but extreme-left and extreme-right movements were much stronger on the web than classical parties. The blog I created at the time, publius.fr, along with 7 other bloggers, was one of the centers of the virtual debate, with more than 500,000 visitors.

In the 2007, I decided not to support a candidate. I just commented, analyzed, and criticized. I'm a pundit, after all, more than an activist. I'm also focused on developing Spintank, which is a "web 2.0" consulting company.

Regarding the French political scene that's online, what are the most popular US-based platforms/sites being used by political groups or candidates in France today (twitter, facebook, myspace... etc.)?

Myspace, in France, is really music and culturally focused, and not used by political groups. Facebook is huge, and has been quite quickly understood by politicians as a direct contact and mobilization tool. Twitter is still mainly focused on the technology community and early adopters (it is estimated we have only 30,000 twitter users in France). Some politicians are beginning to use Twitter, and usage should broaden with the coming European elections, but remains low. The web political sphere is mainly one of blogging and news. Newspapers are important, as are new online "2.0" information sites, such as rue89 or Mediapart. The estimated political blogosphere amounts to approximately 10,000 bloggers, either closely affiliated to political parties, or independent. We don't have real grassroots movements in France, like MoveOn.org, and the blogosphere is still very fragmented. There's not a DailyKos or big communities of bloggers and online activists. Activists, here, seem not to have really understood the potential of aggregating around huge platforms.


What are the popular French platforms/sites being used in politics today?

You have to understand that French politics are managed professionally much less than in the USA. There is a lot less money in politics in France, and thus it is a lot less professional in the way campaigns are conducted. Therefore, parties and NGOs haven't built big platforms and communities. Things are changing, though, and Barack Obama's campaign has been playing a big role in making clear that the web is not only something that should be treated as a complementary communication tool, but as the center for mobilization and activism. The UMP (right-wing party) is working on building a big social network (something like myBO). The Parti Socialiste is late, and has been focusing recently on things other than the web. Parties like the Modem (center) or "Les Verts" (greens) are relying heavily on the web to organize. One strange thing here is that our extreme left movements do not rely a lot on the web, even though it would really be their natural space. The center of the online political sphere is made of some hundreds of blogs and media, old newspapers, or French equivalents of the Huffington Post (such as rue89). Things here, like in the U.S.A., I presume, move rapidly during campaign times. I expect some shifts and strategic moves during the European elections in June 2009. The UMP is moving forward fast, as is the Green movement.


There appears to be a well-developed political or issue-oriented blogosphere in France, tell us about this graph called blogopole, and this other graph about the French blogosphere. Can you tell us about these?

I'm close to the people who have created these maps of the blogosphere. They are really smart people, and have opened an office in Washington recently (linkfluence.com). The blogopole map gives quite a good view of the French political blogosphere. There are big networks around the main political parties, and a central blogosphere of commentators and analysts, mainly connected to the media. It also reflects the diversity in French politics. Not just two main parties, but a lot of different ones (extreme left, left, center, right, extreme right, greens).

What is missing in these maps is the rest of the blogosphere. The economists, law professors, environment specialists, and other people posting about any issue or discipline, who are very important on the French landscape.

Who reads the blogs in France? Is it biggest among social-political groups, or also just as big in entertainment, business, or other parts of the society?

We lack data on who reads blogs, and what type. Blogging is still not an industry in France as much as it is in the US, and the potential market is obviously much smaller. In France, we still have a classical bias of the blogger as younger, more urban, male, educated. Although, we now have quite a lot of seniors participating in blogging than before.

The political blogosphere is important, diverse, and active. Considering the political blogosphere alone, I'd say it's more a thing of 20-35 year old, urban, educated people. Of course, there are a lot of notable exceptions.

Business and technology blogs (mainly high tech, marketing, communications, 2.0, internet...) are very active and concentrated, and are a visible and leading community. It looks like a little bit like the US, with our own techcrunch and readwriteweb.

There are also your classical topics oriented blogospheres, relating on special issues or practices, like cooking or sports, or automobile. The main usage, though, is mainly one of personal social interaction, intimate or friendly gathering of youngsters, women, gay people, relating their life, thoughts, and ideas.


Are there blogs/websites (social networking or other) that are influential but aligned with corporations or traditional media (newspaper website)?

Quite a lot actually. Traditional media, and specifically newspapers are quite huge in France. Lemonde.fr, liberation.fr, lefigaro.fr and nouvelobs.com are the main news sites. Some have been late in embracing social media and blogging, but now are dealing with it quite properly. Some formers journalists from Le Monde and Libération have been founding interesting new venture sites such as rue89 (which is our Huffington Post) and Mediapart (which focuses on a monthly 9€ fee, and seems not to have a lot of success actually, with its 40-people and only 11,000 subscribers). The main teenage social network has been founded by a radio, skyrock. 12 millions teenagers are registered on this social network, which is highly popular among the French youth. There is not a huge independent French social network. Instead, for now, all are linked to the media, or US-based platforms.

Do blogs aligned with traditional media challenge the status quo, or are they generally in support of the status quo? Who writes them? (newspaper reporters vs. dedicated bloggers?)

Blogs aligned with traditional media generally follow the editorial position of the newspaper.

La Figaro, from the right, focuses mainly on opinion blogs, with editorials. Liberation, which is left-oriented, operates some 50 blogs, giving some left-oriented organizations or movements a voice, but also giving a forum to economists, sociologists, and human-rights activists. Le Monde focuses more on cultural and blogging by experts.

All, of course, have some thematic journalists' blogs, such as, for instance, Jean-Dominique Merchet, from Liberation, on Defense issues, or Jean Quatremer on European news, both highly popular on their issues. Traditional media was quite slow in embracing the blogging movement, but now, nearly every newspaper or magazine website has its own in-house bloggers. Surprisingly, though, nearly no amateur, independent blogger has turned professional (we don't have the Matthew Yglesias type of bloggers here yet).

Which blogs/websites/bloggers are influential and independent?

We have some popular bloggers here in France, but I think not as influential or popular as big A-list bloggers in the US. My blog used to be one of the most popular, but only attracted something like 150,000 visitors a month. Our blogging star is Maitre Eolas. He's a French lawyer, in his thirties, and definitely one of the most popular blogs, focusing on decrypting laws, judiciary news, and trials. We have set up an aggregator, with some 15 other bloggers focusing on law, economics and politics. Its name is lieu-commun. The independent blogosphere, though, is highly fragmented and thus not very powerful. Even political parties or progressive organizations find it hard - or don't really think about - helping the blogosphere gain power.

Have bloggers challenged traditionally powerful parties/politicians effectively since the 2007 elections, any examples?

There are not a lot of recent examples of online blogger mobilizations that have challenged political parties or politicians. Bloggers act as a relay of traditional activism, but generally don't initiate it. When they do, they are not powerful enough to make a lot of things happen. The government, though, faces a lot of online mobilization against their projects. The most important recent example was on the EDVIGE file project (a threat against privacy), which was highly criticized online, which led to a lot of grassroots activism. Ultimately, the project was abandoned (soon replaced by another one, though).

The main examples of notable online activism on the past are related to copyright and anti-pirating laws, DADVSI and HADOPI (2005 and 2008). These laws are not accepted among the internet community, and have led to huge online action groups, petitions, and political pressure. Nevertheless, the movements have not yet been able to change or block such laws.

Do political groups or candidates use SMS or any political tactics through mobile phones?

I must admit, the adoption rate is very low. It does seems strange, that in a country where there are more mobile users than fixed lines, but it can be explained by two simple factors. First, acceptability of marketing though mobile phones is quite low, and acceptance of political communication even lower. Second, there is not a lot of money in politics, and campaigns expenses cannot exceed a certain amount of money.

Another reason, as I mentioned before, would be that politicians and political parties tend not to be professional, and rely mainly on sending people on the streets distributing fliers, or organizing huge meetings.

Regarding web & technologies strategies, what do you think was most the most interesting (both in terms of substance & hype) during the recent national election in France? What have been some of the best-used examples of a internet strategy in politics during a campaign?

It was definitely Desirs d'avenir. It looked a lot like Howard Dean's campaign in the 2004 general election. A challenger candidate has been relying on creating a grassroots movement to win the primary election. Desirs d'avenir was quite typical of your web grassroots movement. Decentralized, participative, and self-organized. Segolene Royal failed in transforming this movement in the general election, though. She had promised a co-conception of her project, and people who had joined her were not activists. The election saw a decline in mobilization, and she faced a very good candidate, with a very top-down, but effective, strategy.

Have internet politics played a role in shaping any policy in country, through public pressure or any other means, any examples?

There has been some examples, but they are not restricted to the internet. The 2007 election has seen a huge popular pressure on environmental issues. The movement was led by Nicolas Hulot, a former TV producer, who has been gathering together the green NGOs into a coalition. Of course, the support for this effort was high among bloggers and internet activists, and the internet helped a lot the movement organize and gain power. It led to a strange thing, with all candidates signing a "green pact", and Nicolas Sarkozy launching a huge initiative, the Grenelle de l'environnement.

During the DADVSI (anti pirating law, 2005) debates, online activism (petitions and large numbers of letters sent to members of parliament) led to the project being rejected in its first audition. It relied a lot, though, on an oddity; that when the members of parliament were voting, late at night, UMP had forgot to secure enough members in place to have a majority. Finally though, some months later, the project passed. The law has proven inefficient, and another one, even more stupid, is being discussed.

Recently, Maitre Eolas, our French blogger-lawyer, helped a national demonstration day of judges, welcoming on his blog some 70 posts, by judges, telling their working conditions and opposition to recent law projects. The demonstration made a lot of noise, and was later imitated by some mainstream media. However, it didn't lead to any changes in political decisions. Our government tends to be a little bit on the deaf side.

You had signed the petition calling for the release of two Egyptian bloggers, Kareem Amer, and his colleague Abdul-Moneim Mahmud.

This is an interesting development within the blogosphere on a more global level. Beyond these two bloggers, what thoughts do you have about this sort of international organizing over the internet?

I feel a blogger solidarity. Wherever I go in the world, I know there are at least some bloggers now. We don't share a lot but this practice, this media, this language-- made of links, posts, & blogrolls. We share an attitude too-- we like free speech, take an individual stand, we believe in the power of networks. I have met bloggers from many countries, in Europe, Africa, Asia or America. When I'm on a trip abroad, I nearly always find a blogger and share some time to discuss politics, exchange ideas, build links.

This, still, doesn't extend to something more, for the moment. Politics, apart from some global issues, still depend on national governments to get things done. Global movements, on the environment, global poverty, all these are very important issues. We bloggers share a lot with foreign fellows, and we can import a common agenda in our countries over issues, and find common projects.

I am very enthusiastic about projects such as Global Voices, or reporters without borders, who help bloggers in many countries gain a stand, a voice, stand up. Grassroots organizations are trying to go global. Avaaz, for instance, is a very interesting initiative and pioneer network, though they tend not to settle in France and get into effective action. We are only at the beginning of this movement. I really think bloggers and online activists will be the ones who connect and build a real international action network.

Yet it will be a progression to get there. In France, activism is still in the hands of very structured organizations, unions and political parties (which are not open to grassroots and online activists). A new generation is emerging, which has grown in discovering and acting in politics through the web. This will be a generation with a different approach to borders, and political action. Well, I hope so.