French political debate is shifting from Left Bank cafes and being teleported into cyberspace. Instead of agreeing to disagree over a glass of kir, many French youths are sending their ideas flying through the computer-animated world of Second Life.
"In here, you can see French people expressing themselves as they ought to, instead of being the hypocrites they often are in real life," said an avatar, or computer image, of what appeared to be a woman using the Second Life moniker of Hayahaya Milo.
Unconventional names and uncertain gender are just one of many surreal aspects of Second Life, the three-dimensional virtual world set up by U.S. company Linden Labs that has attracted more than 2 million registered users since opening in 2003.
Users adopt a persona and computer simulation of a human to navigate the new world. They can choose at registration whether to appear as a man or a woman. Sometimes they fly or teleport to a venue, and some avatars' bodies have wings or horns.
Second Life's appeal to many young people has seen political heavyweights around the world join businesses in the scramble to set up shop in the online world and attract the youth vote.
Supporters of presidential frontrunners Nicolas Sarkozy, Socialist Segolene Royal and centrist Francois Bayrou, along with fans of National Front leader Jean Marie Le Pen, have all staked out territory in cyberspace to drum up votes.
Recently at Bayrou's unofficial Second Life venue, a shaven-headed and tattooed male avatar sported an orange T-shirt with the legend "Sexy Centriste".
With France's presidential elections set for April and May, it has occasionally added a dash of violent Gallic street protest to Second Life.
In January a spat between far-right and left-wing supporters that featured exploding virtual pigs made the front page of daily newspaper Liberation.
"National Front supporters launched a few attacks against us, but we can defend ourselves and sometimes try to hold debates with their more open members," said Stephane Deschanel, who heads the Second Life activities of the Socialist Party.
Clashes between political opponents are quite common in Second Life, which also witnessed vandalism to the virtual office of U.S. democrat Presidential candidate John Edwards.
As supporters of France's far-right National Front party gathered at Le Pen's site to discuss a farewell speech from outgoing President Jacques Chirac this month, they were interrupted by the sudden discovery of some broken National Front slogans on their site.
"Before, it was worse. They were doing this kind of thing everywhere, trying to create as much chaos as possible," said a virtual National Front supporter called French Food, who blamed the cyberattack on socialists.
He surveyed the slight damage, then returned to sip a virtual glass of champagne.
Le Pen's site -- which looks like an exhibition space with French tricolore flags and a poster of him and his daughter Marine -- often houses supporters in buoyant mood predicting he will do well as they drink copious amounts of virtual alcohol.
Somewhat incongruously, it is situated next to a Second Life nightclub called 242. Inside the club, a female avatar with purple dreadlocks gyrates wildly to the strains of electronic music, apparently oblivious to the politics next door.
NOT WHAT IT SEEMS
Sarkozy's site, where avatars can collect promotional T-shirts to support his campaign, is like a conference venue. Avatars gather -- some apparently in mid-air -- for rallies.
Loic Le Meur, who speaks for Sarkozy on Internet-related issues, said the Second Life site was popular, but not as important for the candidate as Internet videos and blogs.
"The campaign site gets 15,000 (visits from) avatars a day, which is very good but not quite the same as reaching out to masses of people," said Le Meur.
A teleport and a flight over some mountains takes you to Royal's site, on an island called Bretton. A virtual flag with her portrait flies above the scene.
The Socialists said Second Life was part of Royal's plan to tap into the thoughts of France's youth. Le Pen's followers are keen to have a decent image in Second Life, as the party tries to airbrush its sometimes jackboot reputation.
"We're not racist, we're just proud of being French," said a Le Pen supporter calling herself Celeste Obscure.
Being able to take on a fake identity gives people the courage to express what they really feel, adherents say.
"This allows for real freedom of expression and it lets you see how French people allow themselves to be manipulated by the mainstream media," says Second Life's Mademoiselle Milo, who like the Socialists' Deschanel declined to reveal her real name.
But since the futuristic world is based around false identities, it is impossible to be sure that Second Life supporters of the candidates also support them in real life. A real-life supporter of Royal could pretend to be a Le Pen voter and enter his site as a virtual spy.
A Le Pen-backing avatar called Proteus Lancaster said wanting to snoop on rivals is nothing unusual, adding that a person's real character eventually comes through in Second Life.
"Real life and Second Life are quite similar. You often behave in the same way."
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