March 31, 2007

Liberté, égalité, néologie

In France, the latest nouveauté is... political weblogs. These are blogs that are orchestrated by the publishers of newspapers and magazines, bien sur -- at least, that's the aspect of the phenomenon that the newsies themselves are writing about. Walking around Paris last week, I saw these blogs advertised on all the news kiosks. I read a few of them on line during the few minutes a day that I spent on the net during my visit; and then I got a journalistic perspective on these blogs from an article by Macha Séry in Le Monde, ("Les sites Internet des journaux ouvrent leurs blogs aux intellectuels", 3/29/2007), which I read on the plane back to Philly.

The first thing that struck me about this phenomenon was that no one is paying any heed to the decision of La Commission générale de terminologie et de néologie at the French Ministry of Culture, back in the spring of 2005, that the proper French word for blog ought to be "bloc-notes" (i.e. "writing tablet"), or "bloc" for those in a hurry. In all the newspapers, as well as in the blogs themselves, the blogs are just "blogs".

To an outsider, it seems typique that the French government has an official neologism commission, rostered with an all-star cast of academicians, university presidents and the like, and supported by 18 specialized sub-commissions to do the real work. The neologism commission itself is one of the many activities of the délégation générale à la langue française (DGLF), which "élabore la politique linguistique du Gouvernement en liaison avec les autres départements ministériels" ("elaborates the language policy of the government in liaison with the other ministerial departments"), and acts as an "organe de réflexion, d'évaluation et d'action" (an "organ of reflection, of evaluation and of action").

It also seem typique that the neologism commission's website hasn't been updated since 2001, and that (at least some of) their pronouncements are simply ignored by French society at large, as their choice of "bloc-notes/bloc" for "weblog/blog" has been. But I bet the catering at their meetings is to die for.

The second thing that struck me about these new political weblogs is how small their readership is, by American standards. The blog of Michel Onfray is the most popular of those hosted at Le Nouvel Observateur, (, which the article in Le Monde calls "la plus spectaculaire car la plus massive et la plus prestigieuse" ("the most spectacular because the most massive and the most prestigious"). Onfray's name was featured in large type on special news-kiosk posters everywhere I looked. But according to the article in Le Monde, Onfray gets less than half the traffic that Language Log does, and thus less than 5% of the traffic at Instapundit, and less than 1% of the traffic at Daily Kos.

Is this because Séry at Le Monde is joining the Nouvel Obs in trying to create a buzz that hasn't quite happened yet? Or is it because out of the 2.15 million people in Paris, or the 60.7 million people in France as a whole, there are really only a few thousand intellectuals involved in setting the cultural tone, and so an average of 3,115 visitors a day is all that it takes to reach everyone who matters in le tout Paris?

Here are a few quotes from the Le Monde article (Macha Séry, "Les sites Internet des journaux ouvrent leurs blogs aux intellectuels", 3/29/2007), with (untrustworthy) translations by me:

Le papier étant une ressource épuisable et la pagination limitée, quelques journaux ont choisi, en vue de l'élection présidentielle, de faire vivre et prolonger le débat sur leur site. D'une manière classique d'abord, par des forums de discussion thématiques destinés aux lecteurs en ligne et des chats quotidiens ou biquotidiens. Nouveauté, l'apparition d'un canal contributif avec les blogs d'auteurs extérieurs, hébergés par les sites de plusieurs publications.

Paper being an exhaustible resource and page numbers being limited, some newspapers have chosen, with an eye to the presidential election, to bring the debate to life and prolong it on their (web) site. First in a classical way, with forums of thematic discussion intended for on-line readers, and with daily or twice-daily chats. The latest thing is the appearance of a contributed channel with the blogs of outside authors, hosted on the sites of several publications.

La plus spectaculaire car la plus massive et la plus prestigieuse en termes de noms de signataires est l'initiative éditoriale prise par Le Nouvel Obs ( d'inviter, sous la bannière "Elysée 2007", dix intellectuels à tenir leur journal en ligne. Pour l'hebdomadaire, il s'agit de perpétuer la tradition toujours vivace de l'engagement d'intellectuels et chercheurs dans une campagne, sollicités pour expliciter les thèmes et enjeux électoraux mais aussi pour formuler des opinions ou prises de positions argumentées.

The most spectacular because the most massive and the most prestigious in terms of names of contributors is the editorial initiative taken by the Nouvel Obs ( to invite, under the banner "Elysée 2007", ten intellectuals to put their diaries on line. For the weekly, it's a matter of continuing the still-lively tradition of the engagement of intellectuals and researchers in a campaign, asked to specify the themes and stakes of the election, but also to formulate opinions or arguments for positions on the issues.

En complément des carnets rédigés par les journalistes maison, le premier invité du a été le philosophe Michel Onfray, dont le blog a été lancé le 10 février, quelques jours avant la parution en kiosque du numéro du magazine titrant en "une" : "Les intellectuels virent-ils à droite" ?

As a supplement to the notebooks written by house journalists, the first person inviter [to blog] at was the philosopher Michel Onfray, whose blog was launched on February 10, several days before the appearance on kiosks of an issue of the magazine whose cover read "Are the intellectuals turning to the right?"

As I said, last week it seemed that every news kiosk in Paris is plastered with Nouvel Obs placards advertising Onfray's commentary on the campaign. Despite this, the site's traffic is rather small by American standards:

Leurs carnets de notes ont stimulé l'audience du site de l'hebdomadaire, dont le total des blogs enregistre en moyenne 12 000 visites quotidiennes. A lui seul, celui de Michel Onfray a comptabilisé, du 1er au 26 mars, 81 000 visites, dont 47 500 visiteurs uniques, 231 000 pages lues et 4 273 commentaires.

Their notebooks have stimulated the audience on the weekly's site, with the [ten] blogs in total getting an average of 12,000 daily visits. Michel Onfray himself has racked up, from the 1st to the 26th of march, 81,000 visits, with 47,500 unique visitors, 231,000 page views, and 4,273 comments.

A third (and final) observation about these blogs -- or anyhow about Onfray's: they're rather un-blog-like. At least, the half-dozen posts that I've read are all plain-text essays, between 1,000 and 1,500 words each, with no hyperlinks, no quotations, no tables, no pictures. Even when he starts a post with a reference to someone else's writing, he doesn't link to it, and he doesn't even quote it, he just assumes that his readers will have read it and will know what he's talking about. Or maybe he assumes that they won't have read it, but will form an adequate opinion of its content from his discussion, I don't know. Here's an example, from the opening of his most recent post ("Pour Olivier Besancenot", 3/29/2007):

Dans « Libération » ce jeudi 29 mars : « Olivier Besancenot se pose en rassembleur ». Bravo, encore bravo, toujours bravo ! J’ai souhaité ce rassemblement très tôt, dès le résultat noniste au référendum sur l’Europe ; il n’a pas eu lieu. Je l’ai désiré ensuite, à l’approche des présidentielles ; il n’a pas eu lieu. J’y ai aspiré quand il fut question d’une candidature commune avec vote des comités antilibéraux ; il n’a pas eu lieu.

In Libération, this Thursday March 29: "Olivier Besancenot sets himself up as a uniter". Bravo, again bravo, forever bravo! I wanted this uniting very early, after the no result in the referendum on Europe; it didn't happen. I wanted it later, in the run-up to the presidential election: it didn't happen. I hoped for it when it was a question of a common candidacy for the vote of the antiliberal committees; it didn't happen.

This is not just an anglo-saxon attitude about the blogging form. Some English-language blogs are basically a string of op-ed essays in vaguely blogoid format with an unusually large number of first-person pronouns -- many of the blogs hosted by the New York Times are like that. And for an authentically bloggy blog with an unassailably French point of view -- and a great deal of interesting commentary about political discourse -- take a look at Technologies de Langages, by Jean Véronis. And there are real French political blogs as well, not astroturf creations like the Sarkozy blog", and not top-down publishers' co-optations like the But as far as I know, none of them have emerged as a popular political force in the way that American blogs have. And this strikes me as the other side of the same cultural difference that makes it seem perfectly normal to the French to have a neologism commission, with 18 subcommissions, elaborately organized by the central government. (As usual, if I'm wrong, please tell me.)

[Cornelius Puschmann writes from Dusseldorf:

I just wanted to (very briefly) comment on your LL post concerning the French blogosphere. It seems to me that the good people at Le Monde are too focused on the clumsy experiments of the writing establishment with a new publishing technology.

The French blogosphere as such (sans luminaries) is quite vibrant, as a recent study by PR giant Edelman has found:
"Twenty-two percent of the French read blogs, the highest level of reading in the non-English blogosphere outside of Asia." (p. 20)
"Young adults (18-24) in France read blogs more frequently ( 1.4 times per week) than any other age group in all of Europe." (p. 20)
(from: )

It's hardly surprising that the French youth are using blogs in more innovative ways than people like Onfray, who think blogging is really just chic publishing. Blogging from any kind of institutional pulpit seems difficult, because many blog-readers interpret blogging (plus commenting) as a form of direct interpersonal communication. An institution may pretend to have a voice (a phrase that corporate communications people like to use), but in reality that voice isn't capable of actually having a conversation with anyone. Of course you can use Wordpress or Movable Type in whatever way you see fit, but people tend to react quite strongly to perceived violations of genre conventions. And then there are always the cultural specificities (for example, read about of blogging in Japan on page 13 of the study)....

In case you are interested in (much!) more rambling on institutional blogging, read about my PhD project. In... *deep breath* my blog. ;-)

But none of the "influential French blogs" listed on p. 21 of the Edelman white paper are even partly about politics; and if I go to technorati and search for {presidentielle} in "all blogs" in "any language" with "a lot of authority", I get only 18 results. The top three genuine results, in order, seem to be with an average of around 2100 daily visits, and Toute l'actu, which is a journo-blog produced "par la rédaction de l'hebdo des socialistes", and Page 2007, What seems to be a listing of politically-oriented French weblogs is here. The technorati search misses the popular Big Bang Blog, which is partly political; it doesn't seem to have a visit counter, but its linkage is ranked by technorati just behind, with 1,354 links from 564 blogs (compare 3,052 from 1,273 for Language Log, which is a small-scale operation by U.S. standards). What I don't see, so far, is the French equivalent of Daily Kos or Instapundit -- a site run by individuals, not a political party or a newspaper or magazine, whose readership, to be in proportion to the French vs. U.S. population, should be between 20,000 and 100,000 visits a day, with 3,000-5,000 technorati-indexed links.]

[Update 4/12/2007 -- factual correction here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 31, 2007 06:01 AM