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France : Sex and lies on the cyberspace hustings

by : Charles Bremner
Saturday February 3, 2007 - 01:04

If you want gossip on the love life of Ségolène Royal or a compromising video of Nicolas Sarkozy do not bother looking at the French newspapers or television, just switch on the computer.

Tales of the supposed dalliances and skulduggery of the presidential candidates are flooding the internet as the parties, supporters, bloggers, trouble-makers and comedians pile in before the April presidential election.

Distrust of France’s compliant media and a love affair with weblogs and video clips have turned the internet into a strategic weapon of a kind seen so far only in US campaigns.

The main candidates have multiple sites and battalions of web infantry fighting their causes with both fair and dirty methods. Unlike the US, the French version has added spice because of the traditional squeamishness of the press over private lives and off-the-record talk. Ms Royal, the Socialist, and Mr Sarkozy, of the centre-Right Union for a Popular Movement, are discovering that little now can be hidden.

“Secret meetings, discreet rendezvous - everything is liable to find itself out in the open. It only takes a mobile phone,” said Emery Dolige, 37, creator of the influential sarkozyetmoi site.

Ms Royal, the Socialist who won her nomination with her deft use of the internet to ambush her own party leadership, has found herself the biggest victim of the virtual campaign for the Elysée Palace. Hostile sites and blog chat have begun to inflict damage with a mixture of scurrilous falsehoods and true but unpublished facts about her life and campaign.

Thanks to weeks of internet gossip, every office worker knows that Ms Royal, 53, and François Hollande, 52, her partner and her party leader, are not a classical couple. For months, she has been said to be spending time with a captain of industry and he with a glamourous Paris deputy mayor. Nothing has confirmed this.

The old media dismiss these stories as the modern version of the malicious tracts that circulated about Queen Marie- Antoinette before the Bastille was stormed in 1789. Much recourse has been made to the late President de Gaulle’s refusal to tolerate “stink bombs” in French campaigns.

“It seems as if along with inside journalism, which respects private life, there is developing an ‘outside journalism’ with no ethics,” wrote Marianne, a left-wing weekly.

Ms Royal has suffered because unfounded slander has mixed with some unreported truth. No accountable media or writers have ventured into the private life of the couple, who have four children, even after a public dispute between them last month. That was triggered partly when another internet story finally went mainstream.

According to the report, which had been circulating for months, the Socialist couple were dodging the annual wealth tax after putting ownership of their three homes into the hands of a company.

When the tale emerged, the pair sued a newspaper for breaking the story and issued a list of their assets. They confirmed that their income was high enough for them to be liable for wealth tax - a damaging revelation for a socialist - but proved that they were committing no fraud. The episode contributed to Ms Royal’s current dip in the polls.

Ms Royal blamed Mr Sarkozy’s campaign for the story and “using thuggish methods” against her. “The UMP is developing on the internet a capacity to pollute which is not acceptable,” she said.

The main media have also eschewed other true items circulating on anti-Royal sites and blogs. One concerns the extensive jaw surgery and dental treatment that she had in a Paris clinic 18 months ago. Her orthodentist has landed in professional trouble for circulating a paper on the subject. Newspapers and broadcasters have not mentioned this.

The other is an attack on Ms Royal’s character by General Pierre Royal, her father’s brother. In a 1992 article revived on the web, he calls her an odious fantasist whose conduct towards her family was shameful. The text is doing the rounds on anti-Royal sites.

Mr Sarkozy, like Ms Royal, is the butt of mockery and malicious montages on websites such as sarkozix.canalblog.com. Some of the video pastiches are genuinely funny, notably one by Bruno Candida, who has electronically re-edited the voices of the main candidates. His effort was called brilliant by the serious Nouvel Observateur.

The latest anti-Sarkozy address is a blog by people who live in the Paris street where the Interior Minister has set up his campaign headquarters.

On the “Sarkozy go home” site (rentrecheztoi.blogspirit.com) neighbours in the multi-ethnic district vent their dislike of Mr Sarkozy and the security clampdown that has accompanied his arrival.

“If you want the road to America, it runs through Neuilly,” says one message to the minister, who was mayor of the posh western suburb and is suspected of pro-US tendencies.

Mr Sarkozy, 51, is escaping close attention to his private life, beyond pirate videos of him speaking in private. This is partly because, as a battle-hardened politician, he has protected himself. It is also because the media broke the traditional taboo and reported his temporary estrangement from his wife in 2005. Alain Genestar, the editor of Paris Match, lost his job for publishing a cover picture of Mrs Sarkozy’s lover.

The anti-Sarkozy sites may also be deterred from circulating scurrilous material because of a widespread — and typically unsubstantiated — assumption that the minister has ordered the feared police intelligence service, the RG, to track down offenders.

The official internet staff for the main candidates insist that they are playing clean and that the guerrilla campaign is being waged by renegade sympathisers. “It would be too easy to trace dirty tricks back to us,” a Sarkozy staffer said.

Mr Sarkozy’s side has yet to enter the newest battleground: Second Life. Ms Royal has just followed Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-Right National Front candidate, in opening a campaign office in the virtual real world that is inhabited by millions. Reporters have already sent dispatches from the Second Life campaign, which started with a typically French bang when virtual protesters damaged the “Le Pen offices” .

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/articl...



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