The upcoming presidential elections in France will mark the end of Jacques Chirac's long domination of national politics. The debate now lies between Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy on the left and right respectively.
In appearance, they represent opposing passions, conviction and conflict but, in reality, both are socially more conservative and economically more liberal than Chirac. Their fundamental views of society are very similar, but they communicate it in radically different ways.
While Sarkozy organises huge meetings with rock concerts, massive platforms and balloons, Royal prefers more convivial occasions, where she sits in the middle of a room listening to people express themselves and summarising their concerns at the end. Where Sarkozy buys thousands of key words on Google, and sends millions of e-mails, Royal emphasises participation on her website, allowing voters to express themselves rather than be on the receiving end of other people's campaign material. While Sarkozy deploys a structured, comprehensive and closely argued electoral manifesto, Royal has opted for a Wikipedia-type website, where she invites supporters to contribute their own ideas.
Sarkozy's press conferences are precise to a fault. By contrast, Royal has invented the "participative" press conference, often responding to journalists' questions by asking them what they think, which - astonishingly - works.
This contrast in style is so marked that it has become the leitmotif of the campaign. Sarkozy's is a classical strategy based on power and repetition, hammering out an imposed point of view to the greatest number of people possible. Royal has opted for a totally new strategy based on participation, "co-creation", and sharing.
Royal's success (she has overtaken Sarkozy in the opinion polls) derives from a radical change of perspective in the manner of comprehending and using communications. She has understood earlier than anyone else that voters no longer want "vertical information", written by the few for the many.
Voters today want power. They want to be the authors of the circumstances and events they are living through. Thus Royal's challenge is not to produce and impose content but to invent a unique (for France) political experiment where the voter takes back power. She wants voters to feel they can participate in, and influence, her campaign.
All bets are off for the election on 22 April, but there will undoubtedly be a "before" and "after" Royal for communications professionals. French advertisers have had their eyes opened to the power of participative communications. It is not only the political landscape that she has transformed.
- Bruno Walther is the president of Draft/FCB Paris.