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France’s online ‘fachosphere’ feeds rightwing electoral hopes

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Wearing a tight-fitting leopard print dress, 25 year-old Estelle “Redpill” says her sex appeal is helping to awaken citizens to the dangerous political reality facing France at next year’s presidential election, especially when it comes to immigration.

Self-named after the truth-revealing red pill in the 1999 film The Matrix, the extravagantly dressed Estelle is one of a number of rightwing social media influencers that have exploded on to France’s so-called fachosphere, or fascist-sphere, over the past six years.

While having often different ideas, they share a nativist, anti-immigration worldview and seem to have a general desire for more authoritarian government. Analysts say they tacitly provide an important canvassing role for the established far-right Rassemblement National party by airing extremist views that party members then do not have to.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the RN, has sought to “detoxify” the party’s extremist image without alienating its traditional voters. Now, with the fachosphere, Le Pen “doesn’t need to get her hands dirty because these internet influencers do the dirty work for her,” David Doucet, a French journalist and author of a book on the fachosphere, said.

These influencers use sex appeal, shock jokes, cartoons and memes to entice viewers to their often extreme views (when TikTok barred Estelle for what it deemed discriminatory content, she opened a new account). Their main audience are unpoliticised young voters — an important battleground in next April’s election.

Estelle “Redpill” criticises Marine Le Pen’s “hypocrisy” for becoming “softer to please immigrants . . . so that she has a better chance of winning”

According to Ipsos and Ifop polls, the RN is now the most popular party among those aged between 25-34, while President Emmanuel Macron leads among the 18 to 24s. But many in these cohorts often do not vote. In the 2017 presidential election, 63 per cent of those under the age of 34 abstained in the first round.

One aim of the fachosphere is to bring these potential voters round to their views and make them more politically engaged. They have “mastered the codes of LOL culture”, Doucet said.

No one has leaned more heavily on jokes to mask often sinister content than the YouTube and Instagram influencer “Papacito”, whose real name is Ugo Gil Jimenez.

He sparked outrage in June when he released a video entitled “Is Leftism Bulletproof?”, in which he staged a mock execution of someone voting for the leftwing France Unbowed party led by socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Jiminez defended himself, saying the video was “humoristic”.

A chart showing the % satisfied with democracy by age and generational cohort that shows successive generations have lower faith in democracy than the previous generation - and it generally deteriorates with age. Millenials (born 1981-1996) have the lowest faith in democracy, with less than half satisfied with democracy

Macron has made his own social media content to try to counter extremist influences. In May, he challenged two famous YouTubers to make a video about social distancing rules which, if it got more than 10m views, would be rewarded by a trip to the Elysée and a video with Macron where they would compete to guess if anecdotes about his life were true or false.

Their video with Macron received an impressive 15m views, plus a good dose of derision. Leftwing influencers also deploy satire and popular culture to spread their message among the young.

But France’s extreme right has always shown more internet agility and savvy. The RN, formerly the Front National, was the first party to build a website in the 1990s. In the late noughties, far right theorists created successful online propaganda sites to espouse anti-immigration theories. 

Then, as the social media wave swelled, new voices deployed fresh forms across YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Telegram. Their central message boils down to migration and what they claim is foreigners’ failure to integrate into society.

“We are Europeans and we wish to remain a majority on our ancestors’ continent and in the cities that they built. Is that so hard to understand?” said Daniel Conversano, an ideological participant in France’s alt-right social media orbit. 

His followers tend to be young people, he said over WhatsApp to the Financial Times, who “feel desperate about their future, whether it’s about unemployment, lack of safety in public places, or the disastrous relationship between men and women in the western world”.

YouTube and Instagram influencer “Papacito” released a video in which he staged a mock execution of someone voting for the leftwing France Unbowed party © Youtube

Le Pen’s detoxification strategy, which aims to make the RN more electable, has not played well with a lot of these influencers. Instead, many are tying their colours to more radical, fringe politicians such as Eric Zemmour, a TV polemicist who has been convicted for provoking racial hatred.

Estelle said she has a problem with what she sees as Le Pen’s “hypocrisy”, becoming “softer to please immigrants . . . so that she has a better chance of winning”. Zemmour, by contrast, is more “genuine”, and will get her vote.

If Zemmour runs next year, as he has indicated, these internet influencers could split the extreme right vote, thereby weakening Le Pen. Polls suggest she is the most likely politician to face Macron in a second round run-off.

Some analysts believe the influence of the far-right online counter culture is exaggerated. Despite their efforts, many of the people making and consuming their content will probably not vote.

Still, the influencers’ nativist stance provides an “ideological bridge” between the RN and fringe online groups, according to Caterina Froio, assistant professor of political science at Sciences Po. 

Le Pen may want to distance herself from them, but also relies on them to plug the RN’s “serious shortfall in personnel”, Froio said.

“There are plenty of young people who have never read a foreign political book and who come to political ideas by watching these kinds of videos,” added Doucet. “To campaign nowadays is to click, to post messages, so the RN needs these people.”

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