Emmanuel Macron is now on TikTok, but could the youngest president in France’s history already be out of touch with its users?
Last month Emmanuel Macron posted his first video message on TikTok, the favored application of the Zoomer generation. He could soon be joined by others political figures, who have to be careful to observe the unwritten rules of the social media platform, in order to avoid seeing their youth-engagement efforts backfire.
If you’re into new technology, follow Donald Trump on Twitter or have teenagers in your family you may have already heard about TikTok. For everyone else, it’s a Chinese application which allows users to share video loops of less than one minute – ideal for anyone who wishes to earn their 15 minutes via a viral video or get a message across in a succinct fashion. Today TikTok has 800 million active users worldwide. A potential goldmine of political capital.
Macron’s faux pas
On July 7th, the French president addressed a message to the nation’s latest batch of high-school graduates. For 55 seconds, he congratulated, “the new generation that has a world to invent.” If his intention was laudable, the delivery left a lot to be desired according to Phillipe Moreau-Chevrolet president of MCBG Consulting and a professor of political communication at Paris’ Sciences Po university.
In the application belonging to the tech giant ByteDance, humor, music and dance reign supreme. However, in his speech, the president speaks, well, like a president. From the headmasterly tone of voice to the corporate costume of the two-piece suit, to the backdrop of the Elysée palace garden, the video screams ‘televised address to the nation’. Rival politician Jean Luc Melenchon was quick to mock Macron as out of touch in his own TikTok video days later.
"If Macron's intention was laudable, his delivery left a lot to be desired"
The TikTok paradox
But is appropriating Zoomers codes of behavior really the most effective strategy from an electoral point of view? Not really. Because in France, setting aside all the people of non-voting age that use the app according to INSEE (The national institute of statistics and economic studies), only 58% of 25-29 years voted in the two rounds of 2017 presidential election, as opposed to 81% of 65-69 years olds.
However, for practitioners of asymmetrical political warfare TikTok still has its uses, as it allows politicians to seduce older voters according to Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, who believes in the adage “when speaking to the young, in fact, we are speaking to the older generation.” The goal? “Signaling that you care about the youth and are trying to understand them.” Whether on purpose or not, that is exactly what Emmanuel Macron is doing. The president doesn’t respect the conventions of TikTok, it’s clear. “but it allows him to play the role of the caring father, the kind and sincere supervisor” which, according to the political communications specialist, is similar – though less cringe – to François Mitterrand attempting to speak “verlan” a street slang used by the youth of France back in the 80s.
Whether it is to gain notoriety or to spread your message, all signs indicate TikTok will become soon a tool valued by political figures. After all, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all became part of political communications strategy, so why not the new app on the block, which is now the most downloaded app on Apple Store and Google Play?
But tread carefully. In order not to end up with egg on your face, there some rules politicians would do well to respect. For Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, the most basic consists of creating ad hoc content, which may be difficult since most politicians are wary of improvising or going off message. You also can’t be afraid of poking fun at yourself, not something that comes naturally for a head of state, or a minister who must "inhabit the function" to use a term favored by communications experts. But it is possible to reconcile self-mockery and presidential gravitas, states Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet who is sure that “Barack Obama would have been very good at it if he’d had TikTok while he was in the White House”
Obviously not everybody has the swagger of Donald Trump’s predecessor. For all that, Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet encourages politicians to follow Macron’s lead and sign up to TikTok, not so much to be ‘down with the kids’ but in order to “better grasp issues such as data protection.” Despite the chorus of voices that are making TikToc too toxic to touch for much of the political establishment, engaging with the under 30s on the platform will, in fact allow representatives to immerse themselves in an issue that involves sovereignty and the defense of privacy.