Diverted tautological political communication in French presidential elections: the case of Lionel Jospin in 1995

Franck Michel

School of Modern Languages

University of Newcastle upon Tyne

Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU

United Kingdom



Written before the forthcoming 2002 French presidential election, the present article examines the influence exerted by the mass media and opinion surveys in France upon the public perception of presidential candidates. More specifically, this article focuses on the political communication of socialist candidate Lionel Jospin during his 1995 presidential campaign and engages with Maarek’s concept of ‘diverted tautological political communication’ in order to examine the role played by television and opinion polls in the construction of Jospin’s presidential credibility.


The choice of Jospin as an object of study is influenced by the surprising outcome of the 1995 election’s first ballot, in which the socialist leader beat all odds by taking the first place ahead of his two main conservative rivals Jacques Chirac and Edouard Balladur.1 This first round success, although insufficient to secure Jospin’s final victory, did however contribute to propelling the socialist candidate to the top of the media’s agenda, thus imposing him as the unchallenged leader of the French left for many years to come. The unexpected popularity of Jospin’s first ballot campaign led many journalists and opinion-survey experts to point towards the candidate’s simple and low-key political communication strategy as the key to his electoral success. Originally designed to emphasise the upright and approachable nature of Jospin’s personality in a context of growing public mistrust towards the French classe politique (i.e. the French political elite), this strategy had very quickly been criticised by the media as ‘dull’ or ‘uninspiring’, some journalists arguing that Jospin’s austere image and relative lack of charisma undermined his bid for presidential credibility in a campaign traditionally emphasising personal image over substantive politics.

If anything, Jospin’s unexpected first round victory revealed that, in the words of Maarek, ‘a strong "intoxication" ha(d) clearly contaminated media pofessionals and politicians alike in that public opinion polls had an extreme influence on their decisions’.2 Jospin’s relatively low opinion ratings in the run-up to the election’s first round campaign had indeed somehow misled the media’s ‘horse race’ coverage of voting intentions into regarding Jospin as the election’s ‘underdog’, thus unwittingly contributing to generating a movement of public sympathy in favour of the socialist candidate (the so-called ‘underdog’ effect) which may have led to his first ballot victory. This deviation of Lionel Jospin’s communication by the media and opinion surveys - or ‘diverted tautological political communication’ - is the focus of this article, and we shall notably investigate, via analysis of the media perception of Jospin’s 1995 presidential campaign, the mechanisms leading to the media’s influence over the public perception of presidential candidates.

Following an initial section devoted to the study of some major evolving trends in French political communication which may have stimulated the growth of media and opinion poll influence over the agenda-setting processes in French political campaigning, a second section will then retrace and analyse the four stages of the media’s tautological diversion of Jospin’s political communication, namely ‘identification’; ‘positive personalisation’; ‘critical personalisation’ and ‘strategic connivance’.

2. French political communication: new trends in 1995

In many respects, the 1995 presidential election opened new grounds in the tradition of political campaigning in France. As Maarek points out, ‘the 1995 poll was the first to be held according to the law of 15 January 1990, which considerably changed the modus operandi of the candidates’ political communication strategy’.3 Among the changes observed, Maarek acknowledged the fact that ‘the new election guidelines ha(d) been influential in reshaping the French political communication process’. The aim of this section is therefore to examine the evolution of political communication in France with regards to this new legislation. Following a brief reminder of the state of political communication in France prior to the 1995 elections, we shall then explore the two main areas which have been affected by the new law of 15 January 1990, namely the funding of electoral campaigns and the use of political advertising in elections. This section will notably establish that the new French electoral legislation has resulted in increased influence of both the televised media and opinion polls over the development of electoral campaigns.

2.1 Political communication in France prior to the law of 15 January 1990

The emergence of a new and more professional approach to political communication in the 1960s in France, inspired from commercial techniques imported from the United States, such as marketing or advertising, interestingly coincided with the first introduction of universal suffrage for presidential elections in 1962. Considered as the fundamental yardstick of political life in France, presidential elections have arguably often played a considerable role in the evolution of political communication in France. Whereas the United States and most European democracies have never submitted political communication to many legal constraints, France, on the other hand, felt the need very early to protect candidates against any potential discrimination with respect to new developing communication methods, by legally guaranteeing each duly registered candidate equal access to the new media, namely public television and radio. In that respect, the Fifth Republic's first presidential election of 1965 provided the opportunity to reflect upon the new situation arisen by the emergence of those new communication tools. Political advertising, namely the purchasing by the candidate of some ‘media space’ for the promotion of his/her personal image, was strictly forbidden on television and on the radio, which until the 1980s were largely owned and controlled by the French government. However, in order to compensate for this prohibition, each candidate taking part in the presidential election was allocated free and equal broadcasting time on television and radio. This system is still in place today and was reformulated in the law of 15 January 1990.

Another major consequence of the ban on televised political advertising in France was the upholding of other, parallel forms of communication, such as posters, often considered as partially or fully obsolete in other European countries and particularly in the United States. In the words of Maarek, whereas ‘most spending in the North American political campaigns (…) goes to buying television airtime, sometimes to notoriously excessive effects – the often dubious negative spots, (…) French politicians have instead channelled enormous amounts of money into political posters’.4 Since the 1970s, a number of advertising professionals such as Michel Bongrand, Jean-Michel Goudard, Claude Marti or Jacques Séguéla have indeed contributed to the success of political posters, which still constitute today one of the major forms of political expression in France. The nature of political advertising via the use of posters has evolved over the years, gradually reaching unprecedented levels of sophistication in terms of aesthetics and iconography. The Law of 15 January 1990, by questioning the legitimacy of political posters, as well as limiting the scope of political campaigning techniques, has profoundly altered the nature of political communication in France. Let us examine how this new legislation has affected the development of the 1995 presidential campaign.

2.2 The impact of the Law of 15 January 1990 on the 1995 presidential campaign

In the early 1990s, a number of media investigations denouncing the financial excesses and irregularities which had occurred during the 1988 presidential campaign led the French Parliament (under the supervision of the Rocard Cabinet) to initiate a series of measures revising the existing electoral legislation in order to avoid any further abuses.5 The new law of 1990 not only confirmed the ban on paid political audiovisual advertising but extended it to all forms of advertising, from newspaper advertisements to commercial posters. According to this new legislation, all forms of political advertising for political communication purposes were expressly forbidden within the three months preceding an election’s first round.6 In addition, the new law included provisions aimed at regulating the funding of political parties as well as restricting the cost of electoral campaigns.7.

As the first presidential election carried out under the new legislation, the 1995 campaign reflected in many ways a dramatic change in the tradition of political communication in France. As far as Lionel Jospin was concerned, the range of campaigning techniques at his disposal in 1995 was considerably narrower than that employed by François Mitterrand’s campaigning team in 1988. Already financially weakened by their electoral defeat in 1993, the French Socialists were hindered even further by the new legislation regarding the funding of political parties in their attempts to devise a communication strategy as original as François Mitterrand’s in 1981 and 1988.8 Furthermore, Lionel Jospin, who was elected as the PS candidate to the presidency in February 1995, namely three months before the election’s first round, could not consequently benefit from the use of political posters which, according to P. Vuitton and P. Bonfils, might have helped him to impose his presence more intensively upon the electorate.9 The consequences of these financial and time constraints imposed on candidates resulted in an increased influence of television and opinion surveys in the development of political campaigns.

3. Media and opinion polls: new instruments of political legitimisation

As Ariane Chemin has written, ‘davantage qu’en 1988, le petit écran est le lieu où s’écrit la campagne présidentielle de 1995’.10 Although one may argue that television has always played a large role in the credibilisation process of politicians, it certainly became, due to the new electoral legislation considerably limiting the scope of communication techniques, an even greater relay of the candidates’ opinions and messages to the electorate in 1995. More than ever, it seems that television in 1995 acted as the new political forum where candidates who succeeded in arousing the media’s interest benefited from the unique opportunity to enhance their ‘presidential stature’ by reaching simultaneously millions of viewers in their own homes.

Although receptive to the virtues of this new ‘democratic arena’ allowing ever increasing numbers of citizens to take part in the democratic debate via their television sets, one cannot but observe the ambiguous nature of television’s increasing influence as ‘legitimising force’. In 1997, Roland Cayrol denounced the dangers of what he identified as the media drift towards a certain perversion of the political debate.11 This ‘drift’, accentuated by the dramatisation of the political debate resulting from the competitive pressure exerted on the mediatisation of electoral campaigns, has also been criticised by a number of French scholars for impoverishing the substance of French political communication. Political science researchers specialised in the field of political communication such as Patrick Champagne, Dominique Wolton, Jacques Gerstlé, or Jean-Marie Cotteret have also accused opinion surveys of disrupting the traditional information flow between candidates, the media and the electorate. The French media’s extensive and quite excessive use of opinion polls in order to dramatise the campaign’s evolution has been judged severely by many scholars for perverting the election’s democratic principles. Yet the criticisms addressed to the media for (mis)using opinion polls are not so much focused on the impact which they have on the electorate than on the influence which they exert on the media’s news agenda itself as well as on candidates’ communication strategies.

Generally considered as a barometer of public opinion, polls have been identified as one of the potential factors exerting an influence on the formation of voting intentions. Yet, empirical studies carried out in the United States have led political scientists to demonstrate the relatively small impact of opinion polls on the electorate. In the words of Maarek, ‘It is well-known that the publication of survey results can sometimes consolidate the voting intentions for those candidates leading in the polls (the so-called ‘bandwagon’ effect) and, inversely, that it can sometimes boost those candidates with the lowest voting intentions (the ‘underdog effect). But, in most cases, both effects seem to compensate for each other, which makes for few discernible changes in the trends of voter intentions’. 12 More ambiguous are however the observations made by scholars on the nature of the indirect influence of opinion polls on the media and political communication. In La nouvelle communication politique, Roland Cayrol clearly highlighted the pivotal importance of opinion polls in France for the mass media and political actors as a decisive organ of public mediation between the governing and the governed. 13 Cayrol also criticised the media’s excessive reliance upon opinion polls as a tool designed to generate the dramatisation effects necessary to keep the public’s attention focused on the mediatisation of political campaign developments. By thus conferring some excessive credibility to opinion polls, the media, Cayrol underlined, could be accused of perverting the essence of political debate, as an increasing share of political campaign coverage focuses on the political interpretation of opinion polls, to the detriment of rational political substance. In that respect, Cayrol’s position may be related to Pierre Bourdieu’s view that public opinion, quantified in the form of ‘opinion polls’, constitutes nothing but an artefact aimed at providing an artificial and global representation of different individual perceptions which cannot be assimilated.14 In a sense, the media’s strong emphasis on opinion poll results as an allegedly faithful representation of the public perception of candidates, contributes to the projection of a fictitious image of political reality.15 Thus, it indirectly influences the development of political campaigns, as candidates are somehow ‘short-circuited’ by the media and opinion polls on the agenda-setting processes, in some form of ‘diverted tautological political communication’.16

The nature of this influence was very apparent in the 1995 presidential campaign, as the exploitation of opinion polls by the media had an impact on both the communication strategies of presidential candidates and the political ‘offer’ made to the French electorate. As Patrick Champagne has pointed out, the 1995 presidential campaign revealed probably more than any previous election the ambiguities of the influence exerted by opinion polls and the media on political campaigning.17 The new electoral legislation which prevented politicians from using advertising or posters as an instrument of visual recognition made candidates extremely reliant on the media and television for the promotion of their image and campaign. Consequently, Champagne argued, candidates wishing to benefit from the free media’s attention were somehow forced to comply with the rules of commercial television and audience ratings. Part of these commercial constraints led the media to focus more on the sudden campaign developments allegedly suggested by opinion poll variations, than on the arguably less ‘audience-appealing’ analyses of the candidates’ political programmes.18 This was particularly obvious in the way journalists dealt with the campaigns of Gaullist rivals Balladur and Chirac, turning their attention from the former to the latter as opinion polls indicated a sudden revival of Jacques Chirac’s popularity ratings to the detriment of Balladur in March 1995.19 In this context of media ‘hegemony’ over political communication, media and opinion surveys not only imposes the political agenda on candidates but also influence the political ‘offer’ made to the French voters by questioning the politicians’ right to run as presidential candidates under the motive of allegedly low opinion figures.

As far as the Lionel Jospin is concerned, the next section will now demonstrate how the socialist contender used the media’s tautological diversion of his political communication as an instrument designed to promote his own presidential credibility.

4. Diverted tautological political communication: influence of media and opinion polls in the construction of Jospin’s presidential credibility

This section examines the role played by the media and opinion polls in the political legitimisation process of Lionel Jospin’s campaign. Based on a detailed survey of the media’s attitude towards Lionel Jospin’s campaign on television and in the press over the three months leading to the election’s first round, this section highlights a number of relevant characteristics regarding the representation of the Socialist candidate’s image, based on the media’s interpretation of opinion surveys.20 Four key stages have been identified in the tautological diversion of Lionel Jospin’s communication by the media: First, a phase of ‘identification’ could be observed over the first four weeks following Jospin’s entry into the campaign. This first phase, which contributed to the recognition of the new Socialist candidate, was followed by a second stage of ‘positive personalisation’, during which the media contributed significantly to the success of Lionel Jospin’s image strategy (in the face of positive opinion ratings) by putting the stress on the candidate’s personal qualities. The end of March 1995 corresponded to a new turn in the evolution of the media representation of Jospin’s image. Confronted with stagnant voting intentions in favour of the socialist candidate, journalists seemed to adopt a more critical approach towards Jospin’s campaign, thus entering a new phase of ‘critical personalisation’ in the perception of the Socialist candidate’s image. Finally, a period of ‘strategic connivance’ can be identified during the last two weeks preceding voting day, as Jospin was able to turn to his advantage the media’s dramatised accentuation of his potential inability to reach the election’s second round.

4.1 Diverted Tautological communication: Identification

Unlike most of his competitors, Lionel Jospin entered the presidential race as a relatively unknown candidate. Having spent most of his political career in the wake of former President François Mitterrand, Lionel Jospin had arguably never quite succeeded in emerging as a key political figure in the eyes of public opinion. A 1986 survey carried out by Jean-Marie Cotteret and Gérard Mermet highlighted the image deficit which allegedly affected Jospin, by mentioning the fact that an unusually significant number of interviewed people were unable to express an opinion on the PS’s first secretary.21 Deprived of the credibilising benefits of a pre-campaign and somehow handicapped by his two-year absence from the political sphere, Lionel Jospin arguably lacked the public recognition necessary to automatically establish himself as a présidentiable. Whereas his two main opponents Balladur and Chirac had taken advantage of these two years in order to gradually shape their presidential stature, Jospin was left with very little time in order to regain the public recognition necessary to his campaign’s credibility. In that respect, the media may be seen once again as a large contributor to the prompt identification process of the Socialist candidate’s personality.

The ‘agenda-setting effect’ linked to Lionel Jospin’s sudden return to the political limelight, by enticing the media to discover the personality of a new and unexpected candidate in the presidential campaign, certainly played a great part in the promotion of the Socialist contender’s image. Very early, both press and television journalists attempted to define the personality of a man who appeared a ‘political enigma’, due to the discreet nature of his public appearances and the relative hostility which he had always demonstrated towards the media’s exploitation of ‘looks’ over political substance.22 Integrity and rigour were the words most frequently used by them to describe the personality of the new Socialist candidate, who was praised for his moral qualities allegedly inherited from his Protestant roots.23 Often portrayed as the Left’s new virtuous saviour thanks to his spotless past record, at a time when virtually all major political formations were under allegations of financial misconduct, Lionel Jospin was able to use the fact that he had distanced himself from politics between 1993 and 1995 in order to emerge as a new serene and transcended man, who was no longer the Head of a party but considered himself as a simple, free and independent militant.24 As such, Jospin benefited from the media’s help in emerging as a new and arguably ‘refreshing’ political alternative based on the popular values of honesty, equity and simplicity. In this respect, the media’s stress on Jospin’s lack of charisma and reserved personality may have contributed to reinforce the authentic nature of his image.25 Furthermore, it may have also helped Jospin ‘play down’ his former ‘cold apparatchik’ image by portraying him as an inexperienced yet sincere ‘newcomer’ in this election.

In less than a month, Lionel Jospin answered the double-challenge of gaining public recognition as the new official Socialist candidate and creating the conditions for a new hope on the Left side of the political spectrum. With the media’s help, Jospin was able to easily establish himself as much more than a mere figurehead, appearing instead as a genuine candidate who was less concerned by image than by the need to support a real political project in the election.

4.2 Diverted Tautological communication: Positive personalisation

In March 1995, Robert Schneider wrote: ‘Il monte, il monte Jospin. Sa perçée est si spectaculaire qu’elle intrigue les politologues: Mais jusqu’où grimpera-t-il donc?’.26 In view of the sudden voting intention increase in favour of his candidature, allegedly due to the natural rallying mechanism generated by the official presence of a Socialist candidate in the campaign after months of uncertainties, Lionel Jospin started being perceived by the media under a totally different light.27 Intrigued by the sudden infatuation for the new Socialist leader in opinion surveys, the media attempted to find in Jospin’s personality the reasons for his alleged popular success. As the new candidate of the Left was still working intensively on his political manifesto and could therefore not be judged yet as to the quality of his political project, journalists and poll analysts considered that only his personality could explain the promising figures with which he was credited in opinion surveys.28 Thus, the tautological loop created by the media’s constant interpretation of polls contributed to project a positive image of Jospin, who was now presented as a ‘winning’ candidate, praised for his tenacity and courage in the face of initially inauspicious political circumstances for the Left. Many references to Jospin’s sportsmanship were also interesting in that respect, as they put both the emphasis on the man’s dynamism and pugnacity, and on the politician’s courteous, honest and candid attitude.29

The ‘positive personalisation’ of Lionel Jospin’s public image had some inevitable repercussions on the development of his communication strategy. As Claude Marti has pointed out, the media emphasis on Jospin’s moral qualities as well as his modesty and simplicity when trying to explain the reasons for his popularity, provided him with a tremendous campaigning argument in order to establish himself as a responsible politician with a real interest in his compatriots’ concerns.30 This strategy, Marti added, was all the more easy to follow that Jospin did not have to ‘act’ but simply needed to appear as his natural self. Thus, Jospin was notably able to play on the allegedly immature nature of the conflict opposing his two Gaullist opponents, in order to enhance his presidential credibility. Rather than putting him at a disadvantage, his rather austere and rigid image acted instead as a token of his authenticity.31 By deliberately admitting his uneasiness at media exposure and expressing his wariness about the alleged media distortion of political debate, Lionel Jospin was indeed able to capitalise on the positive representation of his image, thus skilfully ascribing his experience deficit and his lack of specific political proposals to his reserved personality and his genuine concern for realistic and reasonable electoral promises.32 Now well established in the campaign, Jospin’s next task was to present a credible political programme without compromising the coherence of his new public image.

4.3 Diverted Tautological communication: Critical personalisation

Just as it had contributed to forging a strong perception of the Socialist candidate in the early stages of his campaign, the tautological loop generated by media and opinion survey interactions gradually incited journalists to take a more critical look at Jospin’s image and communication policies. In view of the stagnating opinion figures affecting the perception of the Socialist leader’s candidature in March and April 1995, the media started adopting a more sceptical tone towards Jospin’s campaign strategy. Described as a ‘disappointing performance’, the public presentation of Jospin’s political manifesto, although received as credible and realistic in contents, was criticised for its lack of audacity.33 On this occasion, the launch of his campaign slogan ‘Avec Lionel Jospin, c’est clair!’ was also judged rather harshly for its dullness and lack of dynamism.34 Thus, the media’s growing concerns as to Jospin’s abilities to reach the election’s second ballot reflected very much on the ‘treatment’ of the Socialist candidate in news broadcasts and television programmes. In virtually all of his public appearances on French television between March and April 1995, Jospin was asked to comment on the reasons explaining his allegedly ‘wheezy’ and ‘slow-paced’ campaign and was often solicited by journalists in order to justify his loss of electoral ground to his main rivals Chirac and Balladur.35

Naturally, one may argue that the alleged ‘stagnation’ of Jospin’s pre-election ratings was not necessarily imputable to the failure of his presidential strategy. This phenomenon could be interpreted instead as the sign of the stabilisation of voting intentions, following the sudden opinion reshuffle generated by the Socialist candidate’s arrival into the campaign. Yet, the media propensity to use opinion polls as an instrument of self-justification in its interpretation of campaign developments, led journalists and political analysts to turn to the possible image and strategic flaws in Lionel Jospin’s campaign in order to explain his poor performance in opinion surveys. Jospin’s personality and behaviour were the first target of the media’s criticism. Described as too drab and introverted, Jospin was advised by journalists to abandon his psycho-rigid behaviour and his professorial tone in order to better seduce the electorate.36 Jospin skilfully responded to these criticisms by acknowledging his alleged lack of presidential charisma. He notably evoked the need for him to ‘fendre l’armure’ –split his shell/armour open- in order to better convince his compatriots of his sincerity and his will to reform the French nation.37 Simultaneously, Jospin was able to reinforce the coherence of his political discourse, by appearing as a victim of the media’s constant emphasis on image to the detriment of political substance. On TF1 (France’s first TV channel), he notably expressed his irritation at the journalists’ comments on his campaign’s alleged lack of dynamism by replying that he was the actor and not the commentator of his campaign and adding that he deplored the low level of this campaign and wished the media would focus more on political programmes.38 Thus, Jospin succeeded in turning the media’s critical personalisation of his image to his own advantage, by emerging as a responsible Statesman with a genuine preoccupation for rational politics. In that respect, Jospin’s refusal to adopt a more aggressive behaviour towards his two Gaullist opponents –in spite of many suggestions to do so- proved a real asset in the establishment of his credibility, as it demonstrated the candidate’s disregard for la politique spectacle, i.e. personalised, image-based politics, and set him apart from his competitors’ alleged ‘duel for power’.

4.4 Diverted Tautological communication: Strategic connivence’

As the first ballot campaign draw to a close, there seemed to be little doubt among the media with regard to the presence of Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac in the election’s second ballot. Before being prohibited by law in the last week preceding the election’s first round, opinion polls showed a significant revival in favour of the Socialist candidate to the detriment of former challenger Balladur.39 However, the dramatic tensions strategically generated by the media in order to keep a weary audience from losing its interest in the campaign somehow contributed to spread the feeling among the public that nothing had been decided yet as to Jopsin’s chances to reach the election’s second round. Concerned about this phenomenon, the Socialist candidate first attempted to remedy the situation by accentuating his presence in the campaign and by adopting a more spontaneous attitude designed to tame down the ‘rigid’ appearance of his image.40 The media noticed the ease and spontaneity with which Jospin was now addressing the public in meetings and ‘field trips’, joking and inter-acting with his audience and making witty yet cutting remarks to his political adversaries. This ‘warming up’ of Jospin’s image was well received by political analysts, as it remained in coherence with the principles of sincerity and simplicity developed by the Socialist candidate. As such, it did not appear therefore as a tactical move but was seen as the natural consequence of Jospin’s increased self-confidence after several months of campaigning experience.

Another ‘tool’ used by Jospin in order to counter the wave of media scepticism towards the success of his presidential strategy was to call for the ‘useful vote’ (le vote utile). In some implicit phenomenon of ‘strategic connivance’ with the media’s agenda, Jospin took advantage of the dramatic tensions linked to the suspense generated by his potential election setback and denounced the dangers for the French democracy to see the Left eliminated in the election’s final round.41 Thus, by implicitly placing the blame for his possible defeat on the dispersal of ‘Left’ votes, Jospin probably convinced a significant number of hesitant voters to opt in favour of his candidature. Once again, Jospin’s sincerity and credibility were all the more reinforced that the Socialist candidate – who was never considered as a possible winner in this election, had repeatedly stated that he would gain no personal benefits in ‘breaking through’ the second round. However, his presence in the election’s final stage would represent a great hope for the French Left, symbolising the return of a strong but renewed Socialist party following many years of political decline. In any case, we may argue that the strategy adopted by Jospin in response to the media’s strategic manipulation of polls certainly played a large part in his unexpected first ballot victory. In that respect, commenting on the pollsters’ failure to predict Jospin’s excellent performance, Jean-Marc Lech admitted that ‘le gagnant du premier tour, Lionel Jospin, peut en tous cas dire merci aux sondages, puisque c’est leur connaissance et leur influence qui ont dégelé en sa faveur ce sursaut que nous n’avions pas prévu’.42

5. Conclusion

In spite of his final defeat against Jacques Chirac, Lionel Jospin somehow managed to appear in the media as the real winner of the 1995 presidential election. Jospin himself qualified his own performance as ‘une défaite d’avenir’ (a ‘promising defeat’), underlining the fact that his campaign had created the conditions necessary for a revival of the French political Left. As we have seen, image played a considerable part in this renovation process which might not have been successful without the guarantees of authenticity and sincerity placed forward by the candidate Jospin. Unchallenged on the issue of his moral and personal integrity, Jospin benefited from the media’s indirect yet crucial help in putting forward the positive attributes of his personality in order to enhance his presidential credibility. Formerly perceived as a ‘second-class’ Delors substitute, Jospin succeeded in less than three months in establishing himself as the new undisputed leader of the ‘post-Mitterrandist’ Left. Simultaneously, he was able to use his ‘outsider’ image in order to justify his freedom of speech when criticising the lack of political substance in his opponents’ campaigns and expressing the need for a more authentic and responsible relationship between the governing and the governed.

This article provided the opportunity to highlight the important role played the tautological diversion of political communication by the media and opinion surveys in the public perception of Lionel Jospin’s image, gradually establishing him as a credible political alternative through an interesting process of ‘positive’ and ‘critical’ representation. In many respects, Jospin’s 1995 presidential campaign, by presenting the socialist candidate under a different light, succeeded in shaping a new and more positive public perception of Jospin. This new image perception may have set the tone for the candidate’s political communication in office, when he returned to government in 1997 as Jacques Chirac’s Premier ministre de cohabitation. Today one of France’s longest serving Prime ministers and most popular politicians, Jospin will undoubtedly soon attempt to transform what he qualified in 1995 as a promising defeat (une défaite d’avenir) into a clear electoral victory over his main rival incumbent president Chirac. The 2002 presidential elections may however prove slightly more difficult to handle for the socialist contender, who, although clearly in a position to win the election, is now perceived as an established politician with a record to defend. As such, the very same phenomenon of tautological diversion of his political communication by the media and opinion polls which had played in his favour seven years ago, may well place him in a vulnerable position by forcing him to address sensitive issues linked to his past record in government, such as crime or unemployment. Only time will now tell whether Jospin succeeds in stopping a potentially negative deviation of his communication by opinion polls from anihilating his chances of becoming France’s new president in 2002.


Notes and references

1. Jospin secured 23.3% of the vote, ahead of Jacques Chirac (20.8%) and Edouard Balladur (18.6%).

2. Maarek, P. (1997) ‘New Trends in French Political Communication: The 1995 presidential elections’, Media, Culture and Society, Volume 19, London: SAGE.

3. Maarek, Philippe (1997) op. cit.

4. Maarek, (op. cit.).

5. The Canard Enchaîné in a special ‘Dossier’ published in 1988, estimated that the Socialist party had spent over 100 million Francs (about 10 million) for the campaign of François Mitterrand. Half of this amount was allocated to the conception of political posters. See Maarek, Philippe J. (1992) Communication et Marketing de l’homme politique, Paris: Litec. Appendix 4, Page 278.

6. Maarek, Philippe J. (1997) (op. cit.) also specifies that ‘another provision of the law even forbids local government communication agencies from engaging in anything other than routine communication work during the six months preceding a nationwide election day, in order to prevent the taxpayers’ money going into advertising that could benefit, intentionally or not, the incumbent politicians’.

7. The Law of 11 March 1988, anticipating the law of 15 January 1990, set the limit concerning presidential election expenses to 120 million Francs (about 12 million) and 140 million Francs (about 14 million) for candidates who take part in the election’s second round. In 1995, this limit was reduced even further by the law 95-62 of 19 January down to 90 million francs (9 million) for ‘first round candidates’ and 120 million Francs (12 million) for the two ‘second round candidates’.

8. According to the new law of 1990, political parties can no longer benefit from corporate subsidies and large private donations. Consequently, political parties in France, who generally count far less members than in other European countries, have now become extremely dependant on public funding, which is attributed to them in proportion to the number of votes obtained at general elections. In 1993, left with only 50 MPs (11.6% of the vote) at the National Assembly, the PS found itself in severe financial difficulties and nearly sold its head-office in the rue de Solférino in Paris to cover for its expenses.

9. Vuitton, Philippe, Bonfils, Pierre (1995) L’Affichage et les élection présidentielles et municipales de 1995, Médiapouvoirs. ‘Qui sait, enfin, si un autre candidat, dont on constate que la campagne ne semble pas prendre tout son essor, dans les sondages tout au moins, ne regrette pas lui aussi de ne pas pouvoir faire une camapgne d’affichage qui le replacerait dans les intentions de vote à l’aune de ses espérances?’. Although arguably considered as a minor persuasion tool in the vote formation process, political posters are believed to play a important part in the identification and ‘rallying’ power of a candidate. Vuitton, Philippe (op. cit.) ‘l’affiche électorale est incontournable pour se faire connaître, imposer un visage, un ‘look’, créer un style et lancer un slogan. Au delà de cette première phase, le travail de persuasion et d’explication du candidat retrouve naturellement tous ses droits et ses exigences’.

10. Chemin Ariane (1995) Le Monde Radio-Télévision, 22-23 January, page 36.

11. Cayrol, Roland (1997) Média et démocratie La dérive, Paris: Presses de Sciences Po.

12. Maarek, Philippe (1997) New Trends in French Political Communication: The 1995 presidential elections, Média, Culture and Society, Volume 19, London: SAGE.

13. Cayrol, Roland (1986) La nouvelle communication politique, Paris: Larousse. See chapter 3: ‘La République des sondages’.

14. See Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) L’opinion publique n’existe pas in Questions de Sociologie, Paris: Minuit.

15. See Champagne, Patrick (1995) De l’Irréel des sondages, Médiapouvoirs #38: Les médias font-ils l’élection?, page 63.

16. Maarek (1997) (op. cit.)

17. Champagne, Patrick (1997) Pre-election opinion polls and democracy, in Perry, Sheila, Cross, Maìre, Voices of France, Social, Political and Cultural Identity, London: Pinter.

18. Champagne, Patrick (1995) (op. cit.) ‘La campagne, cette-fois se déroule essentiellement dans les médias en raison de la quasi interdiction de la publicité et des campagnes onéreuses par affiches qui furent à l’honneur lors de la dernière élection présidentielle. Aujourd’hui, les candidats passent essentiellement par les radios et les télés. (...) Du coup, les médias imposent les règles de l’audimat. On fait passer plutôt les grosses pointures que ceux qui ont quelque chose à dire et chacun doit se plier aux codes imposés par l’horaire et le type d’émission choisi par la chaîne. Cela a un effet sur le débat, notamment pour ce qui concerne les ‘petits candidats’. Au lieu de faire venir sur des plateaux de télévision les pubilcitaires pour commenter leurs affiches comme ce fut le cas en 1988, les journalistes ont surtout fait venir cette année les sondeurs et ont fait commenter les sondages au lieu de parler du fond’.

19. The contrasted performances of Jacques Chirac and Edouard Balladur at the political programme ‘Face à la Une’ in April 1995 are in that respect particularly enlightening. During this 15 minute programme, as Edouard Balladur was forced to spend most of his imparted time answering concerns regarding the possibility of an electoral setback, Chirac was invited to comment on the sudden revival of his popularity ratings in the polls and to give a few hints as to his future presidential action. The inequality of treatment between the two candidates on the sole basis of opinion poll results is here astounding.

20. This study is based on a compilation of articles from the daily and weekly French press as well as a television corpus comprising all of Lionel Jospin’s televised interventions over the period February-May 1995.

21. Cotteret, Jean-Marie, Mermet, Gérard (1986) La bataille des images, Paris: Larousse. Page 77:‘4 personnes sur 10 n’ont pas formulé d’opinion sur le premier secrétaire du parti socialiste. La principale raison est, pour 20,7% des interviewés, qu’ils ‘ne font pas de politique’. Un chiffre élevé si on le compare à ceux concernant la plupart des autres personnalités politiques. 6,6% déclarent ne pas le connaître, et 6,2% ne pas le connaître suffisament pour émettre une opinion sur lui. Enfin, un nombre relativement élevé de personnes (6,5%) refusent de répondre au questionnaire. Au total, il n’y a donc que 60% des Français qui ont quelque chose à dire sur Jospin’.

22. Cotteret, Jean-Marie, Mermet, Gérard (1986) (op. cit.) page 75:‘Au total, l’homme apparaît donc comme un des derniers réfractaires à la stratégie du ‘look’. Etre est pour lui beaucoup plus important que paraître’.

23. The reference to Jospin’s Protestant origins may seem rather unusual in a secular regime such as the French Republic. Evoking such concepts as austerity or rigor, the reference to Protestantism may have been designed to emphasise the honest and responsible nature of Jospin’s personality.

24. C.f. ‘Carnets de campagne’ (political programme) on France 2 in January 95: Interviewed on his differences with Henri Emmanuelli, Jospin replied: ‘Ma candidature est portée de façon tranquille. (...) Je suis un des Socialistes qui a gardé son indépendance’. See also Paris Match (16.02.95) Interview with Lionel Jospin page 51: ‘J’ai connu une sorte de libération de moi-même, en passant par une phase d’isolement qui m’a permis de me retrouver, confie-t-il. Cet isolement m’a sorti du monde des courants’.

25. Cf. Albert Duroy in ‘Carnets de campagne’, France 2 (January 95): ‘les gens qui vous aiment bien regrettent un manque de charisme mais ils vous reconnaissent de grandes qualités intellectuelles et morales.

26. In Le Nouvel Observateur, 9-15 March 1995, page 40.

27. Jospin’s ‘presidential credibility’ rose from 21% in December to 32% in January and 49% at the end of February. Credited with 15 to 16% of voting intentions at the end of January, Jospin came ahead of Balladur and Chirac towards the end of February, with 21 to 24% of voting intentions in his favour (according to the two main polling institutes in France, IFOP and SOFRES).

28. ‘Pour le candidat socialiste, l’état de grâce s’est produit dès le lendemain de son entrée en campagne, et puisque pendant plus d’un mois il n’a rien dit de son projet ni de sa stratégie, il faut bien en concl;ure que seul son style et sa personnalité ont suscité ce subit engouement qui fait aujourd’hui que ses supporters ne scandent plus ‘Jospin président’ sur un mode gêné ou rigolard. (François Bazin, Le Nouvel Observateur, 9-15 March 1995, page 42).

29. Cf. Le Nouvel Observateur (9-15 March 1995) ‘C’est un bagarreur, il aime la castagne et déteste perdre. (...) Il faut avoir vu Jospin lutter jusqu’à l’épuisement sur un court de tennis et battre à l’usure des joueurs autrement doués que lui pour mesurer la pugnacité de cet homme qui ne s’avoue jamais vaincu’.

30. Interview with Claude Marti (06.07.99)

31. On several occasion, Lionel Jospin attempted to explain his admittedly ‘cold’ and fixed image by putting forward his wish to remain authentic. In an interview with Gérard Miller published in VSD (23-29 March 95), Jospin declared: ‘Je vais essayer de vous expliquer ce que je ressens... Si mise en scène il y a, je ne veux pas en être l’auteur agité. Car seule la pudeur, la simplicité permettent d’obtenir, dans chacun de ces contacts rapides [avec les Français], une relation néanmoins authentique’. In the political programme Zone Interdite on 02.04.95, Jospin came back to the issue of his fixed image in those terms: ‘J’aime la spontanéité et je ne veux pas singer des émotions qui ne seraient pas réelles. Du coup, je me fige davantage. La vie politique m’a durci’.

32. Lionel Jospin did not present his programme officially until 7 March in a press conference.

33. See Bernard Mazières in L’Express (Hors-série: Spécial Elysée), 24 April 1995, page 18: ‘Ses débuts sont laborieux. La présentation de son programme en mars au Palais des Congrès à Paris n’a pas été rassurante: un exposé trop long, une voix mal assurée. (...) En voulant persuader ses électeurs qu’il incarne un socialisme nouveau et crédible, en rupture avec celui de François Mitterrand, il déçoit les militants qui n’en demandent pas tant’.

34. Cf. Zone Interdite (02.04.95) Jospin even implicitly admitted the flaws in his original campaign slogan by declaring ‘Le problème avec les gens de communication, c’est que ce qu’ils vous proposent est génial et ils ne vous laissent pas le choix’. Interestingly, this confession seems to illustrate how dependent politicians have become on the judgement of image and communication professionals for the management of their campaigns.

35. ‘Est-ce-qu’elle ne piétine pas un peu votre campagne?’ (Michel Field, L’Hebdo, Canal+, 18.03.95); ‘Vous semblez patiner dans les sondages’ (Christine Okrent, A La Une sur la 3, France 3, 02.04.95); ‘On a l’impression d’un candidat qui s’échauffe sur le banc de touche mais qui a du mal à entrer dans le jeu entre Balladur et Chirac’ (Bruno Mazure, La France en Direct, France 2, 03.04.95).

36. L’Express, 04.05.95, page 54.

37. Cf. Jospin, interviewed after his success at the 1st ballot ‘On me disait compassé, trop pudique. J’ai fendu l’armure. Je ne pouvais le faire qu’au feu de la démocracie. Il y avait une telle chaleur, un tel besoin de convaincre qu’il fallait que je brise un peu cette personnalité’.

38. Face à la Une, 16.03.95: ‘je suis l’acteur et pas le commentateur de ma campagne. (...) Je souhaiterais que l’on parle des programmes et je regrette le bas niveau de cette campagne’

39. Cf. Law of 19 July 1977 regarding the publication of opinion surveys. This law was taking into account the potential influence of opinion polls on voting behaviour and attempted to clarify the situation by prohibiting the publication (and not the realisation) of voting intention surveys in the last week of any election campaign.

40. Le Nouvel Observateur, 20-26 April 1995, page 42: ‘Il y a quinze jours, pourtant, Jospin a eu peur. Malgré le retrait du candidat de Radical, il a craint un instant que se renouvelle le collapsus des européennes. Les sondages piquaient du nez. Les bonnes campagnes de Hue et de Laguiller semblaient porter leurs fruits. La remobilisation des balladuriens, surtout, paraissait avoir enrayé le processus de marginalisation du Premier ministre. Faute d’une chabanisation de Balladur, allait-on assister à une rocardisation de Jospin?’

41. Cf. Le Nouvel Observateur, 20-26.04.95, page 43: ‘la rudesse dont a fait preuve Jospin au cours de cet épisode a été le reflet d’une inquiétude momentanée devant quelques sondages défavorables. Mais elle traduit aussi un calcul. Pour que les médias, selon son expression, ‘éclairent l’autre partie du terrain’, il fallait que le candidat socialiste mette en scène les conditions du rassemblement à gauche. Au besoin en en soulignant les difficultés. Bref, Jospin a dramatisé par nécessité et par intérêt’.

42. In Le Point, #1180, 29.04.95. ‘Pourquoi nous avons sous-estimé Jospin’, page 68.