French Politics in 3-D on Fantasy Web Site

A computer screen grab of the cyberspace community 'Second Life' shows a protestor outside the office of Presidential candidate Jean Marie Le Pen's Front National party.
A computer screen grab of the cyberspace community 'Second Life' shows a protestor outside the office of Presidential candidate Jean Marie Le Pen's Front National party. (Adam Pasick -- Reuters)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 30, 2007

PARIS, March 29 -- In a battle between push guns and pig grenades, the exploding pigs won.

The clash started on a January morning when protesters attacked the cyberspace headquarters of extremist French presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the popular 3-D Internet fantasy world Second Life.

Le Pen security forces responded with push guns, whimsical digital weapons that tossed bodies through the air "like rag dolls," according to one witness. Protesters fought back with pig grenades, firing fat pink porkers that exploded in neon pink splatters. When the shooting ended, Le Pen's headquarters lay in ruins, deserted by staff and guards.

The confrontation in Second Life -- the parallel online universe where players cloak their alter egos in cartoonlike bodies -- demonstrated the rising impact of the newest cyber-venue for politicians trying to promote real-world campaigns.

All four major candidates in France's presidential election have opened virtual headquarters in Second Life, an interactive forum that allows inhabitants -- called avatars -- to engage in debates, attend political rallies and take part in protests in a multidimensional world that makes traditional campaign Web sites seem quaint and antiquated.

"The emergence of political headquarters represents the next generation of Internet-based political campaigning," Wagner James Au, a Second Life blogger who witnessed and reported the attack against Le Pen's cyberspace headquarters, wrote in an e-mail interview.

For now, the numbers are small. Campaigns report that Second Life has estimated daily visit numbers of up to 20,000 for Ségolène Royal, 11,000 for Le Pen, 10,000 for Nicolas Sarkozy and 7,000 for François Bayrou.

But increasingly, politicians in France and across Europe are discovering what businesses have already recognized: If they build a virtual headquarters in cyberspace, real people will come.

"There is something distinct about communication in Second Life," said Margaux Gandelon, a 20-year-old journalism student who helped create its headquarters for Bayrou, who is running as an alternative to the ruling party's Sarkozy and the Socialists' Royal in the April 22 French presidential election. "People don't behave the same way as when you meet them on the street -- they are more open to discussions."

Interest in the French presidential campaigns has become so intense that visits to the cyber-headquarters helped give France the second-highest number of Second Life avatars of any country in February, according to the site's records. Only the United States registered more avatars on the site, which claims more than 5 million registered participants.

"The French are by far the most passionate about real-world politics in Second Life," Au said. "The U.S. candidates' sites are like ghost towns, for the most part, while the French headquarters for Le Pen and Ségolène Royal have been quite active."

Among the U.S. presidential hopefuls, Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are campaigning in the virtual universe, and Edwards's headquarters has been vandalized.

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