In a small office on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the same Paris street as the Élysée Palace, the secretive “ideas and images” online unit of France’s far-right National Front was planning its next attack.
As the battle for the presidency hotted up, signs that Emmanuel Macron, the centrist presidential contender, was polling strongly raised the possibility that he would make the second round vote to face FN candidate Marine Le Pen.
“We needed a real campaign against Macron,” Gaëtan Bertrand, head of the online organisation, recalled in a recent interview, one of several people who talked to the Financial Times about the inside workings of the FN’s digital operations. “He’s about marketing rather than policies. He’s supported by the media and the establishment against the interest of the people.”
Their response was a series of online videos aimed at halting the Macron momentum. One honed on a perceived lack of policies, depicting the 39-year-old as a “candidate of the void” whose statements were chosen by a slot machine.
Another picked on a recent trip to Algeria, during which he outraged FN supporters by describing the French colonial occupation as a “crime against humanity”, splicing footage of Mr Macron talking with shots of jubilant north Africans, and asking whether he wanted to be president of France or Algeria.
For decades, the fight for the French presidency took place in rowdy town halls and cobbled village squares across the country. But as with Donald Trump’s successful bid for the White House and the campaign for the UK to leave the EU, the battlefield today has shifted online to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — and other, darker corners of the internet.
The FN online unit is at the forefront. A dedicated and powerful group, the messages it pumps out form the bedrock of an aggressive social media operation that is the most powerful in French politics. Ms Le Pen has 1.3m Twitter followers, and almost as many Facebook “likes”, more than twice as many as Mr Macron — despite his supposed youthful appeal. The other main presidential candidate ahead of the first round on April 23, the 62-year-old conservative François Fillon, has even fewer.
“Marine Le Pen is a force to be reckoned with in social media,” says Gaelle Bertrand at Kantar Media, a consultancy. “She has a strong following and drives further engagement by targeting rival candidates.” Mr Trump employed a similar strategy to win the US election.
The attacks on Mr Macron have gained tens of thousands of likes and retweets and plenty of comments. More anti-Macron videos are expected.
The men inside FN’s online unit are an unusual mix. One is Ms Le Pen’s brother-in-law; another is a former gay-rights activist; a third is an agitprop specialist who made his name distributing bacon soup to the homeless in Nice, a city with a big Muslim population.
Their output is powerful in its own right. But the videos, images, memes and other content they produce also help shape the discourse of a wider group of far-right sites and online groups known by opponents as the fachosphère. This shadowy network picks up and interacts with FN messages, amplifying it and often pushing it into racist or Islamophobic territory.
An army of amateur commenters, backed by sites such as Egalité et Réconciliation, Boulevard Voltaire and Fdesouche form the backbone of this community. The three sites have a combined 550,000 followers on Facebook, well short of liberal Le Monde newspaper’s 3.6m, but still significant.
The term fachosphère was coined by two liberal French journalists Dominique Albertini and David Doucet in 2008, but it refers to a nebulous collection of far-right groups around the world they say have been growing in power over two decades.
Far-right sites have been blamed for radicalising extremists such as Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in a 2011 rampage in Norway. But the notion of a far-right internet army was given new prominence after the so-called alt-right movement helped power Mr Trump to victory.
The lines between the FN and online far-right are fluid. Often the latter will go much further than the party, which has made efforts to detoxify itself. In one recent case, activists set up parody Twitter accounts giving Muslim names to Ms Le Pen’s rivals. Mr Macron was lampooned as Djamel Macron and an avatar doctored to give him a long beard.
The FN distanced itself from the incident. But it highlights the growth of an online cadre prepared to employ shock tactics to push the FN agenda, allowing the party to keep its hands clean.
The FN hopes this wider network will give it the edge in the election, which Ms Le Pen is predicted to lose at the second round stage. An opinion poll last week suggested the FN leader would be heavily defeated in a run-off vote with Mr Macron.
To overturn this deficit, supporters such as Donovan Gachon could be critical. Contacted on Twitter, the 24-year-old says he has no formal links with the campaign, but goes online to support the FN and “speak directly to the French people without the media as an intermediary”. He says he is drawn to Ms Le Pen’s defence of French values in the face of globalisation and multiculturalism and “anti-immigration discourse”.
Sympathisers abroad, notably in the US, also give backing, with pro-Trump accounts tweeting out articles praising Ms Le Pen. Many in the alt-right view the French vote as another chance to push their agenda after the Trump victory.
Mr Bertrand insists his unit has no contact with foreign movements, but lauds the birth of a global ideology which shares the FN’s anti-immigrant populist views.
“All around the world people are waking up,” he says. “They’re no longer constrained by what’s taboo . . . they want to see patriotism . . . prevail.”
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