France's presidential candidates are making their final pitches. In a drama-filled campaign, Vote&Vous, a voting assistance application, aims to help users look beyond the personalities to the policies.
Eleven candidates. Two rounds of voting. Multiple scandals. At times, the French presidential campaign has seemed more like theater than politics, with personalities and emotions overriding policies and facts. But a group of young civically engaged French citizens hopes to help voters focus on the issues - and not the drama - with its voting advice application (VAA) Vote&Vous.
A French tool with German roots
The application, which launches on Monday, April 17 - one week ahead of the first-round voting on April 23 - grew out of a German-French partnership, Vote&Vous co-founder and Director Benjamin Kurc told DW. In 2013, he and other French scholarship participants paid a visit to the Federal Agency for Political Education (BPB) in Berlin, where they were introduced to the Wahl-o-Mat, Germany's popular VAA that had over 13 million users during the 2013 German parliamentary campaign.
"They were looking for a French partner for the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections," Kurc said. The group searched around, and after failing to find a possible partner organization in France, they decided to take on the project themselves.
The first Vote&Vous tool attracted 350,000 users in the 2014 EP elections, and Kurc wants his VAA to reach the widest spectrum possible in the upcoming French presidential elections.
20 years and running
VAAs are not a new thing. The grandfather of today's digital version, StemWijzer, was born in 1989 in the Netherlands through collaboration between the Dutch Citizenship Foundation and other partners. Though StemWijzer's inaugural book and floppy-disk duo did not find a large market - fewer than 50 copies of the disk were sold - today, the Dutch VAA is one of the most successful voting aids. Over 6.8 million individuals consulted the app in this spring's Dutch elections, according to the StemWijzer's website, and nations across Europe have country-specific versions.
The underlying principle of all VAAs is straightforward: The tools calculate political proximity, as Professor Stefan Marschall of the Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf, who researches VAAs, explained.
A VAA present the user with a series of questions, and the user's answers are compared to positions of parties or candidates. The algorithm or method utilized to calculate the user's political proximity can vary between VAAs, Marschall said. "But the principle remains the same: [A VAA shows] distance and nearness between the user and the parties or candidates."
"There is no gold standard, no one method that is the most objective," Marschall added. "The most important thing is … whether questions are asked that have to do only with factual issues," rather than questions of party image or personality.
Vote&Vous: a focus on the young generation
What sets the Vote&Vous model apart is that the policy questions are developed by young people who come together in civic seminars. For the current presidential Vote&Vous, 56 questions were created by around 30 young people in Paris over two days. This method not only fosters civic participation, Kurc argues, but enables the creation of policy questions that may not be high up on politicians' lists, yet are important to young voters.
"They are not experts, "Kurc said, "but we use a method that makes it possible to achieve this. And when the questions are created by young people, it is participatory. We want it to come from civil society."
The finished questions were sent to all 11 French candidates, who responded with their answers. Out of the 56 original questions, 25 were selected for the app "that allow the 11 candidates in the first round of voting to best differentiate themselves from one another," Kurc said.
Julia Harrer, a German national who is pursuing her PhD in politics, has participated in various Vote&Vous civic education workshops, though she did not work on the questions for the current tool. She told DW she thinks VAAs can especially help younger generations become more politically active.
"To engage young people, I think it is a very good device … I think my parents maybe know about it, but they will never use it. They say, 'I don't need this, I know what I want,'" she said.
"It is very transparent; you can find out about what parties think about certain issues, and whether you agree or disagree … it's very useful," she added.
More conversation and less party identification
Skeptics argue that VAAs take the hard thinking out of politics - a dumbing-down of politics to an automatic algorithm that removes the necessity of critical analysis rather than spurring increased political engagement.
But Kurc strongly rejected this criticism. "You are challenged to take a position, to give an answer - yes, no, or I don't know. And sometimes it is difficult," Kurc said. "You don't just read something passively; you have to decide and give your opinion 25 times." Reflecting and having to take a position is a type of political activism, he argued.
As for possible concrete effects of Vote&Vous on the French election, Marschall thinks such a thing is difficult to predict. But the expert does believe the tool could allow voters to look past political personalities and understand candidates' concrete policy positions. And at the very least, Vote&Vous could spur further conversation among those who consult the tool.
"We know from research that when someone uses a VAA, they are mobilized to talk about politics" or seek out additional political information, Marschall said.
In the long term, Marschall suspects VAAs could lead to weaker party identification. "People will decide from election to election which party they will vote for," rather than stick to the same party, as they become more interested in the parties' concrete offerings and look more closely at policy issues, he theorized.
Kurc is not yet sure what format the app will use for the run-off round on May 7. Depending on who makes it into that round, the questions may need to be changed in order to clearly differentiate user distance from or proximity to the final two candidates, Kurc explained. In the meantime, he - along with the rest of the French population - will be eagerly awaiting the April 23 results.