Sarkozy Googles as Paris Riots

Ads on Google that direct Web surfers to a petition supporting hard-line Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy have ignited a political storm

The political fallout from the riots that have rocked France over the past two weeks has only just begun (see BW Online, 11/7/05, "The Economics Fueling the French Riots"). But the center-right party, headed by law-and-order presidential aspirant Nicolas Sarkozy, is already tapping into public concern -- and stirring controversy -- with an unprecedented high-tech ploy.

Since last weekend, Internet users who entered the French equivalents for such words as "riots," "burned cars," and "violence" into the French home page for search giant Google (GOOG) got the usual list of free links. They also got a small advertisement, tucked into the upper right-hand corner of the page, directing them to a special Web site for the ruling French political party, the Union pour un Movement Populaire, or UMP.

There, surfers were presented with an electronic petition expressing support for Sarkozy and his tough stance toward the rioters. Dubbed "the prince of darkness" by critics, Sarkozy has backed widescale arrests, curfews, and "zero tolerance" for hooliganism. An estimated 37,000 users have clicked on the ad and visited the UMP's site, and 11,500 people have signed and returned the petition, says a party spokeswoman.


  Sarkozy's Google AdWord campaign was the brainchild of new-media guru Arnaud Dassier, who couldn't be reached for comment. He runs a small Web and advertising agency in Paris called L'Enchanteur des Nouveaux Médias (roughly, "the charmer of new media"). Dassier's outfit has done work for numerous government agencies in France, including Paris city hall, as well as dozens of corporate clients.

In interviews with the French media, Dassier said his firm purchased three "families" of keywords on Google, concerning politics, Sarkozy, and the banlieues, or suburbs, of Paris, where the riots have been concentrated. Dassier told ZDNet France that the keywords had lifted traffic to the UMP site by 10% to 15%.

Online reaction to the keyword campaign was fast and furious. One blogger labeled it propaganda, while another suggested that the French Left had something to learn from such an "enormous and superclever" media tactic. Others wondered how much the campaign had cost the UMP, bemoaning the fact that Google ads are available only to those with the financial means to buy them. Another -- clearly a Sarkozy opponent -- suggested that the UMP also should have bought the words "repression, inequality, unemployment, police state," and "racism."


  The 50-year-old Sarkozy is on the hot seat right now because, as interior minister of the current French administration, he is most directly responsible for quelling the riots. Given his aspirations to be elected President in 2007 -- and his strong anticrime political position -- Sarkozy stands to lose the most if the riots continue to spin out of control (see BW Online, 11/7/05, "France Burns for Its Sins").

Sarkozy also was responsible for shuttering in 2002 an experimental group of suburban police precincts, set up by the previous Socialist government. The police stations, meant to improve community relations in the long-simmering housing projects ringing Paris, didn't reduce the crime rate.

As usual in France, the cyber-politicking wasn't without massive controversy. Among the words purchased by Dassier et cie was a controversial epithet, "racaille," which has no easy English translation, but can mean "rabble," "riff-raff," or even "scum."

That's the word Sarkozy used to describe protesters who pelted him with rocks and bottles during an Oct. 25 visit to a poor Parisian suburb. The outrage over his use of the slur may have played a role in touching off the riots, which began two days later, after two immigrant youths were accidentally electrocuted while hiding from police in an electrical substation.


  Dassier has denied purposely signing up to link with "racaille." He notes that when advertisers buy a keyword, Google presents a list of synonyms also available for purchase. "We cleaned out an enormous number of the proposed words, including many far worse than 'racaille,'" he told ZDNet. "We never had the intention to let the keyword 'racaille' get through."

Bloggers responding to the ZDNet story dismissed Dassier's assertion as bunk, explaining that buyers must specifically select each AdWord. "Dassier is lying," said a reader identified as stef/qb.

A Google spokeswoman in Paris confirmed that the UMP had purchased AdWords, but could not discuss them for reasons of client confidentiality. She did say, however, that it's technically possible for advertisers to buy a raft of keyword synonyms without explicitly "opting in" to each one.


  Sarkozy recently learned that what Google giveth, Google can taketh away. Unrelated to the riots, a group of cyber-savvy French political opponents has succeeded in planting a so-called "Google bomb" against Sarkozy.

Through a coordinated effort of linking Web sites, they manipulated the search engine so that when users enter the name "Nicolas Sarkozy" into Google's French home page, the first result to pop up is a promo for a recent film called Iznogoud. The movie title is a play on the English phrase "is no good," pronounced with a French accent. Although the film is based on a comic book by the same folks who created the famous Asterix series, French Web surfers will no doubt understand the playful reference.

In any event, the UMP's online adventure has achieved its goal in generating buzz. Searching for "racaille" no longer points surfers to the UMP ad, but the other keywords still do. Looks like Sarkozy will use every tool at his disposal to get his message out -- and to try using a potential political black eye to his advantage.