For the French National Front, online discussion forums are becoming the perfect propaganda tool. Why? Because they’re uncensored and anonymous. Stephanie Stoll investigates
Stephanie Stoll, The Guardian, Jun. 3
How many votes will the National Front win in the next European election? With each election, the far-right party gains more support in France — and the internet becomes a more important strategic tool for its extremist leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
From the web’s earliest days, Le Pen identified it as the ideal vehicle to promote his ideas. His party’s site www.frontnational.com makes his reasons clear, stating its aims as countering “censorship and the media boycott”.
“We live in a country where freedom of speech is a deception,” says Romain Létang, webmaster for the National Front. “You can be charged for just saying ‘I am fed up, there are too many immigrants.’ For us, the internet is a pure propaganda medium where our message is not distorted.”
The National Front considers all journalists biased against them. Even with around 15% of the ballot, the party does not have a single elected deputy — and for that reason they can’t claim even minimal access to mass media, as granted by law.
The party found the web, or more precisely discussion forums, to be the perfect way to canvass the French voters. “In neutral forums, such as Google, Yahoo! or in newspapers’ [websites], we can diffuse our information,” says Létang.
Frontnational.com even offers some advice to those who want to spread its message: be courteous and precise. “Try to establish relations. Avoid any ‘direct’ political propaganda, since ‘moderators’ responsible for filtering messages posted would surely delete yours.”
While such tactics are nothing new in US or even UK politics, the apparently complacent reaction of the major French political parties means the National Front’s internet strategy is far ahead of the rest.
Anne Catherine Franck, the webmaster for the Socialist Party, says only that her party plans to “develop an internet culture . . . within two years”. Meanwhile Antoine Emeury, webmaster for www.u-m-p.org, the site of Jacques Chirac’s party, links the National Front’s strategy to their difficulty in accessing the mass media. “Nevertheless,” he says, “I am used to logging on to political forums and I did not notice they were especially active.”
But a detailed, three-month survey by researchers at Datops suggests otherwise. According to their statistics, the National Front has gained a real visibility on the internet, with its leader almost as apparent as the Prime Minister or President Bush.
Datops analysed over 3,000 messages posted by 478 people. Just 13 people were responsible for 1,500 messages. Datops noticed that a few people send out the National Front’s press releases, without entering into an online debate.
Others joined in discussions around the party’s favourite topics, such as immigration, security and most recently, the arrival of Turkey into the European Union.
The National Front also urges its members to vote for polls on newspaper websites. Newspapers have spotted the impact that mobilisation has had on their results.
“We saw some anachronistic results on our polls about the National Front,” says Eric Mettout, editor of www.lexpress.fr. “There were incidences of massive numbers of votes from the same machines, but this method is not the prerogative of the Front.”
Frontnational.com also lobbies the media. “When a journalist is very discourteous to us, or writes an iniquitous article about us, we denounce him on our unofficial mailing list. We are very reactive and have an efficient network of correspondents,” says Létang.
Oliver Blondeau, a sociologist specialising in social mobilisation on the internet, says the National Front is changing its tactics online. “The National Front is getting away from its strategy of victimisation,” he says. “They want to look younger, and are using Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, as ‘the new face of the party’. That is all part of it.”
While a new face can’t disguise the old policies, the European elections could offer a further litmus test of the effect of the National Front’s presence online.