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.
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 Benoît 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.