Late Friday night, they appeared: thousands of pages of documents allegedly stolen from Emmanuel Macron's campaign. The data dump, which first appeared on the website Pastebin, included staffers' personal and professional emails, along with contracts and campaign finance information for the French presidential candidate.
In the United States, such leaked content would be the stuff of wall-to-wall media coverage. (See, for example, the thousands of articles and news segments produced about the Democratic National Committee's leaked emails.)
In France, though, the press has been noticeably silent. That's because France has a national moratorium on campaigning and media coverage. Starting 44 hours before a presidential election, the press and candidates are required by law to observe a “blackout.” (On Sunday, Macron will face Marine Le Pen in a runoff for the French presidency.)
The measure dates back half a century. It is designed to prevent a last-minute story from swaying the election, particularly before a campaign can respond or all the facts can be reported out. “If there were a scandal, it should have been exposed by Friday,” Pascal Jan, a professor of constitutional law at Sciences Po Bordeaux, told the Sydney Morning Herald.
That's why early Saturday morning, the country's electoral commission urged journalists and media outlets not to cover the contents of the leaks. In a statement, it called on news outlets to heed “the sense of responsibility they must demonstrate, as at stake are the free expression of voters and the sincerity of the election” itself. The commission also warned that, “the dissemination of such data, which has been fraudulently obtained and in all likelihood may have been mingled with false information, is liable to be classified as a criminal offense.”
The French media has largely obliged. According to Reuters, television channels have barely referenced the leak. Online, a handful of outlets are giving them play, but none highlight particular revelations.
In a statement, the newspaper Le Monde explained its decision to abide by the ruling. Analyzing the information and sussing out what's real and what's fake takes time, the French newspaper said. To publish something now would be a violation of its policies. “If these documents contain revelations, Le Monde will of course publish them after having investigated them, respecting our journalistic and ethical rules, and without allowing ourselves to be exploited by the publishing calendar of anonymous actors,” it said.
The moratorium also makes it impossible for Macron to respond to specific accusations, something that makes the media leery. Just minutes before the blackout, Macron's En Marche party announced that it had “been the victim of a massive and coordinated hack.” The campaign also said that the communications showed only the normal functioning of a presidential campaign, but that authentic documents and fake ones had been mixed on social media to sow “doubt and misinformation.”
One site, Numerama, did do a cursory sift of the leak. A full analysis, they warned, will take time. But at first glance, they write, “these are quite ordinary documents.”
“There are briefing notes, bills, loans for amounts that are not excessive,” the site explained, along with “strictly personal and private exchanges — personal notes on rain and good weather, a confirmation email on the publication of a novel, the reservation of a table between friends.” Some documents, he wrote, don't seem to have any connection with Macron at all.
One place the blackout has not been observed? Social media.
As Ben Nimmo, a U.K.-based security researcher with the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council think tank, explained to Reuters, incorrect and unsubstantiated rumors about what the leaks contained began buzzing across the Internet on Friday night, spread largely by far-right Americans.
As he explained:
The leaks emerged on 4chan, a discussion forum popular with far right activists in the United States. An anonymous poster provided links to the documents on Pastebin, saying, “This was passed on to me today so now I am giving it to you, the people.”
The hashtag #MacronLeaks was then spread by Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump activist whose Twitter profile identifies him as Washington D.C. bureau chief of the far-right activist site Rebel TV.
By Saturday morning, many Le Pen supporters shared the information, too. But experts doubt it'll make much difference. Largely, they say, the attitude toward the hack in France is nicely summed up here: