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Europe diary: Election on the web

18 January 2007

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell on France's battle of the blogosphere three months before presidential hopefuls Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy face the voters.

Nicolas Sarkozy

There's every sign that the French Presidential election will be fought right here. Well, in cyberspace at least. Segolene Royal has long had her own website and Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign site has just been unveiled.

It's a bit different, in intention at least, from the run-of-the-mill politician's website: as far as I know it's a unique political experiment. Tony Blair's one-time right-hand-man, Alastair Campbell, was very keen on the idea of "unmediated" outlets, where politicians can talk to the people without nasty journalists making snide comments around them. This largely took the form of appearing in softer media outlets like afternoon chat shows and women's magazines.

Segolene Royal
Segolene Royal has had a web presence longer than her rival
Sarko has gone one stage further and set up NSTV on the web. Obviously his own team will have behind-the-scenes access: we were drooling at the sort of unguarded shots they got, although I suppose they will cut them in the most dignified way possible. I am less sure about the accompanying "Sark OH Sark OH!" song, although it's one of those terrible tunes that stays in your head for days.

This video doesn't seem to be up at the moment - we had a sneak preview. There is a film of his speech to a party meeting, cut with people saying, "I want that!" after each promise. The organisers say NSTV means that if someone makes a comment on the evening news they will be able to instantly put up a Sarkozy response.


An author and organiser of the site, Jose Freches, says Sarkozy has had a bad press because he's been a tough, hardline interior minister. He wants to show more sensitive, listening side of his friend of 25 years.

Jose Freches
Jose Freches: Nicolas Sarkozy has a listening side
This is exactly what one would expect a publicist to say about a politician with a harsh image, but he goes on to be more personal and more revealing. He says the real Nicholas Sarkozy is like a thoroughbred racehorse, very highly strung, and his mind is like the intricate workings of a finely balanced watch.

This is a widespread perception of the man, so it's even more remarkable that he has scarcely put a foot wrong in the run-up to the elections. But campaigns are, I always think, like road testing a car under severe conditions: if something's going to go wrong, it will be exposed here.


More and more of us get our news, indeed much of our information, online and it'll be interesting to see whether the French elections really are fought in cyberspace and what influence it has. I have always assumed that those who spend hours trawling the political nets are very likely to engage in debate on details, but have made their minds up on basic questions like who to vote for. But perhaps this is wrong.

When Sarkozy spammed three million people, a lot of them did bother to click on the link
After all, according to Le Monde 27 million French people use the web everyday and 40% of them say it's their main source of political information. When Sarkozy spammed three million people, a lot of them did bother to click on the link rather than hit the delete button. It's claimed 30,000 people joined the UMP as a direct result. How's that for political communication?

"Immoral," according to some bloggers. One site has been set up to protest at this political use of spamming. It is a spoof made to look at first sight like a page for Sarko supporters. As well as a petition against spamming, it carries a series of videos, featuring Sarko as a hypnotist, hero of a thriller and poking a finger in a giant eye.


One committed blogger, Tristan Mendès France, the grandson of the radical post-war prime minister, is keen to attack Sarkozy. He's using his site, egoblog to comment on the election and campaign for Segolene Royal - although one gets the feeling that, as with many on the Left, this is a tactical move rather than out-and-out enthusiasm.

Tristan Mendes France
Mendes France's summary of his position is a model for others
He told me that the spamming was legally above board but just plain wrong - against the conventions of the internet. We meet in his fabulously cool loft apartment in Paris. He's very straightforward, speaks near-perfect English, and all the women in the office want to be next to interview him after they see his picture.

One trick politicians might learn from him is the way he describes his politics not in vague but sweeping phrases but by a summary of his position on various subjects. It runs for nine lines but here's an example: for the legalisation of cannabis, anti-Bush, voted "Yes" to the European constitution, against the second Iraq war, and for the first. Perhaps all politicians standing for election should be made to fill in a similar questionnaire?


Of course, no election on the web would be complete without mock-ups of politicians being made to do very silly things.

Discosarko.com screen grab
Discosarko: A hit in the BBC Paris bureau
The UMP's candidate dancing to Staying Alive was an instant hit in the Paris office.

But I think my favourite for now is this cartoon set to music. But all this surfing reminds me I haven't checked out my favourite French blogger recently, Clotilde, at the wonderful chocolateandzucchini.com. Nothing about the election there... yet.

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Your comments:

A close friend of mine in Paris once told me everything in the US gets to France eventually; jeans, McDonalds, no-smoking rules and now politics American-style. Slick PR, candid 'I didn't know the camera had film in it' pictures at the beach, statements on what needs to be done without any details as to how one would do it, obfuscation of one's position on issues, long on form and formula, short on substance.
Leonard, New York City

Cannot get out of mind how similar the Sarkozy poster is to the Mitterrand poster of 1981 "la force tranquille". Colours, poses, perspective, it's uncanny!
Juliet, Morden, Surrey

Pray what is the splendid French ballad currently being blasted out at Disco Sarko dancefloor four?
Nick Scahill, Hove

This "ballad" is Johnny Hallyday's "L'envie d'avoir envie"... Anyway, good choice, I love this disco thing! Thank you.
Decreux Camille, Toulouse, France

I just hope during the next election over here that they can get Gordon Brown doing disco as the Sarko one had me in fits of laughter. The thought of him dancing to Stayin' Alive makes all those campaign speeches worthwhile.
Rachel Saunders, York

Would the web be Americanising the French campaign process and America not any more awful or are we dreaming!
brd, London, England

What a disapointment to see the beeb ignoring the whole French political debate beyond Ms Royal and Mr Sarkozy. One example among many: a fresh new party named Alternative Liberale is trying to debate key issues shunned by the main candidates, like the overbearing weight of the Sate or the useless complexity of regulation and its detrimental effects on business and on everyday life. If the beeb mimics the other media in giving no access to such different voices, there is a very real risk that severe and urgent problems simply won't be debated at all in the campaign.
Guillaume Kalfon, Brussels Belgium

Just clicked over to Tristan Mendès France's blog (mostly out of interest, as we share the same surname) and find the top story on his blogg introduced as: "Le très sympathique journaliste Mark Mardell de la BBC..." Mr. Mardell seems to have made a good impression.
Clive , Tokyo, Japan

I find French politicians look very suspicious, either on the web or on a billboard. I blame it on the bushy eyebrows.
Andy Brown, Paris, France

To Guillaume in Brussels. I'm not surprised that the BBC hasn't said anything about Alternative Liberale, no one's ever heard of them - including the French media, which operates under much stricter fair access legislation than exists in the UK. I had a look on the web and find that they have been going for just three months. And the party leaders are hardly household names.
Roger, Paris, France

BBC is like the he French media, just talking about Sarkozy and Segolene. No place for other candidates, BBC is like the French media, very mediocre! I m very astonished by that. no place for other people. Pensee unique is the moto of these days. Politics in France, it s not just about the two of them who represent barely 40% of the votes!
Olivier, London


Mark Mardell Mardell's Euroblog
The Europe Diary is now a Euroblog - click here for the latest post





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