Social media time out as French election reaches final stage

Published 7:57 am Monday, April 24, 2017

PARIS — The final hours of many electoral campaigns are frantic affairs, dominated by last-minute pitches, late-breaking polls and massive social media campaigns aimed at drumming up turnout.

Not so in France.

Rules dating back more than half a century impose a 44-hour time out ahead of the polls’ closure Sunday, meaning that politicians, journalists — and even ordinary citizens — are supposed to refrain from broadcasting any form of “electoral propaganda.”

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The Twitter feeds of France’s 11 presidential candidates went quiet after midnight Friday.  French television coverage was subdued. And if you’re a journalist who has just received a newsworthy tip about one candidate or the other, you’re just too late.

“The press can’t publish such a story,” said Pascal Jan, a professor of constitutional law at Sciences Po Bordeaux.  “If there were a scandal, it should have been exposed Friday.”

The national time out lasts from midnight Friday to 8 p.m. on Sunday in France and is intended to give voters time to reflect on their choice free from the distraction of surveys, radio commentary, and televised rallies.

The rules apply online as well, meaning that candidates and their campaigns can’t do so much as post updates to Facebook or Instagram. The rules even apply to French voters — meaning that someone posting a pro-Socialist or pro-Republican message online could fall afoul of the law, at least in theory.

“It applies to all of us. It’s totally forbidden,” said Jan, although he acknowledged that, in practice, a single person posting wouldn’t be sanctioned for expressing themselves online. “But if it became massive … it would unbalance the contest and thus might influence the votes of those who were exposed to social media.”

Amid chatter about foreign propaganda and so-called “fake news” possibly affecting the vote, French authorities seem to be keeping a close eye on potential violations of the law. Journalists have been sent repeated instructions about what is and isn’t allowed in the last few days.

The various candidates’ Twitter feeds, meanwhile, are frozen in time.

“Sunday, let’s vote Francois Fillon!” says the last tweet from the right-wing candidate’s campaign.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen’s last tweet rebroadcasted a message by her niece, National Front lawmaker Marion Marechal-Le Pen, who said, “This Sunday, the only real question that matters: Who will have the courage to protect France and the French?”

Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon retweeted a message from Paris’ mayor, Anne Hidalgo, “Sunday, I’m voting Benoit Hamon. Come vote, participate!” she said. “That’s the power of being a citizen.”