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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)

Is a virtual world created as an escape from everyday hassles really the place for partisan politics?

When Antonio Di Pietro, Italy's transport and infrastructure minister, recently announced plans to set up an office on a tropical island in Second Life, residents staged a protest. "It doesn't seem right to make this a photocopy of real life," an avatar sheathed in black velvet complained to the Italian newspaper La Stampa. "We get enough politics there already!"

Last fall, Guillaume Parisi, a member of the youth branch of the National Front party, helped persuade the 78-year-old Le Pen to become the first French presidential candidate to open a headquarters in Second Life.

Le Pen, who stunned France in 2002 by winning enough votes to reach the runoff election, has been convicted of calling the Nazi gas chambers "a detail" of World War II -- Holocaust denial is a crime in France -- and for inciting racial hatred by saying France was in danger of being overrun by Muslims.

"Second Life allows us to talk to various people from a lot of different countries," said Parisi, 24. "They realize that we are far from the caricature of Nazis that people believe. It's great for our image abroad."

French avatars tried to persuade the Internet site's creator, California-based Linden Lab, to refuse to sell Le Pen a spot on Porcupine, a Second Life island created as a shopping mecca. Opposition avatars picketed his glass-fronted headquarters, and the morning when the protest turned violent, Le Pen's Second Life location became so overloaded by avatars trying to rush to the online scene that the clash took on a slow-motion, dreamlike quality and many were knocked off-line.

"Every time we organize a public event, we expect far-left militants to come and demonstrate against us," said Parisi, who has since rebuilt the headquarters in another virtual location on the site. "Second Life is not different."

Other candidates have encountered problems on the cyberspace campaign trail. "The headquarters are so open that we see extreme behavior," said Loic Le Meur, a French blogger who helped open the virtual office of Sarkozy, the ruling party candidate, on Sarkozy Island, where campaign volunteers hand out virtual T-shirts and pizza to visitors.

"Some people come with grenades or guns. A few days ago, we even got a woman character wearing a G-string! We've had to implement a new rule banning weapons and encouraging people to dress properly."

Campaign Internet strategists say the Second Life headquarters for now appeal to a relatively small base of technologically savvy voters. But in a campaign in which only a few points separate Sarkozy, Royal and Bayrou, campaign officials said they can't afford to dismiss the several thousand voters who visit their virtual offices -- far more than the number who visit their real world headquarters.

"It's not a mass communication phenomenon, but we reach people who wouldn't have gone to meetings or rallies," said Gandelon, Bayrou's Second Life coordinator. "We talk to a lot of undecided voters and also activists from other parties."

The campaigns attempt to create cyber-headquarters that reflect the personality and politics of the candidates.

Bayrou's headquarters includes a farm with cows, barns and a tractor, reflecting his roots as the son of farmers and his hobby raising thoroughbreds. On any given day, a visitor might find a Bayrou activist wearing an orange T-shirt emblazoned with "Sexy Centrist" riding a horse.

The Second Life offices of Royal, on Bretton Island, are built of wood to reflect her concerns for the environment, according to BenoƮt Thieulin, 34, who heads her Internet campaign.

Just like the real world, campaigns have to expend manpower to maintain their Second Life headquarters. Three Bayrou supporters spent 50 hours each over three weeks to construct the headquarters, which now requires 10 people working two to three hours a day to manage. Fifteen Sarkozy-supporting avatars guard over his cyber-headquarters 24-7.

Thieulin, the Internet coordinator for Royal's campaign, said the greatest benefit of the virtual headquarters has been the media interest it has generated. He described Second Life as "part of a wider Web strategy," adding, "We try to be everywhere online."

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

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