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Tuesday, 19 March, 2002, 17:49 GMT
French candidates go web-crazy
Lionel Jospin (left) and Jacques Chirac
Jospin and Chirac were two popular keywords

This year's French presidential campaign is set to be the first in which the internet will play a significant part.

In these days of electoral apathy, candidates for the French presidency have been trying to lure voters back to the polling stations by any means they can.

Candidates can no longer ignore the net

Frederic Van Batten, of web company Vumetrix
This campaign has seen a flurry of internet sites, with the main candidates all launching websites ahead of the poll in April and May, ranging from the serious to the ridiculous.

Not surprisingly, the main keywords typed in by internet users are Jospin and Chirac, the two leading contenders in the election, according to Vumetrix, a company that measures the visibility of websites on the internet.

Frederic Van Batten, Vumetrix's manager, says there has been a marked increase in interest in political sites dedicated to this year's election, compared with last year's local elections - even if users' interest remains limited.

"These new sites can make a difference; they are aimed at a younger population who use the net, but might not be interested in politics. It is one of the ways of reaching them. Candidates can no longer ignore the net," he told BBC News Online.

Mixed bag

There is an eclectic mix of sites to be seen - from the candidate with two sites (Chirac) to those who kept web wizardry to a minimum (Daniel Gluckstein of the Workers' Party), via the slick (liberal candidate Alain Madelin).

They are rich in interactivity with live chats, e-mail updates or online press conferences.

And for the really avid, there is the opportunity to contribute to candidates' programmes (communist candidate Robert Hue) or make an online donation.

Mr Vouzemoi
Mr Vouzemoi: "None of his friends are called Jean-Marie"
But visitors to the Lionel Jospin website will be rewarded with a little extra.

There, a bizarre character straight out of French blockbuster Amelie greets users to the sound of accordion music and dispenses the day's pearls of wisdom on the campaign.

Most are barely concealed jibes at incumbent president and rival-in-chief Jacques Chirac.

We are told Mr Vouzemoi ("Mr Average") does not lie - a reference to sleaze allegations against Mr Chirac - and "none of his friends are called Jean-Marie" - a thinly-veiled allusion to Jean-Marie Le Pen and efforts from the RPR to capitalise on the far-right vote.

Mr Chirac's sites are more straightforward, building on his established position as president of the French Republic since 1995, featuring pictures with dignitaries such as the Pope or Bill Clinton.

Personal touch

In an election in which the French seem to have lost interest and find it increasingly hard to distinguish between the various candidates, the personal element has also grown in importance.

Vumetrix says many internet users have shown interest in the wives of the two main contenders, with mounting interest in Bernadette Chirac, who has featured prominently in Mr Chirac's political campaigns and career.

Mrs Jospin - aka Sylviane Agacinski, a writer-philosopher who is Mr Jospin's second wife - up until this campaign has stayed out of the political limelight, but has also made more appearances recently.

Jerome Jaffre, founder of a website called Expression Publique where users can express their views on how the election is unfolding, believes the internet will gradually grow in importance.

"Traditional structures of democracy are less well-adapted to voters' aspirations and lifestyles," he says.

"With internet and information technology, we are perhaps witnessing the emergence of continuous democracy - with more initiative given to voters to express themselves, to get together, to communicate, to have the possibility to intervene at all time without having to wait for voting deadlines."

See also:

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