The Web site unleashed on cyberspace as part of his election campaign shows a virtual version of the usually straight-laced candidate disco-dancing to KC and The Sunshine Band's "Shake Your Booty" and other grooves. It even offers a choice of dance steps. Mouse-click to make Sarkozy moonwalk like Michael Jackson or jive like John Travolta.
But Sarkozy, who's narrowly leading polls, aims to have the last laugh.
Presidential contenders _ led by Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal _ are pouring resources and creative-thinking into the Internet on an unprecedented scale, targeting young voters and the many others jaded by politics as usual and hungry for fresh approaches after the 12-year presidency of Jacques Chirac.
The expanded role of "Le Web" in this election race is also playing into concerns that image-management is trumping concrete and coherent debate about the nation's many social and economic ills.
Sarkozy's site is part of an effort by his hired marketeers to make him seem hip and in-touch with the times and to collect the contact details of potential supporters. It asks visitors to leave their e-mail addresses, even mobile phone numbers, so they can be reached by his campaign as the clock ticks down to the April-May presidential vote.
The humor is designed to foster buzz and prompt people to recommend the site to their friends _ a technique known as "viral marketing."
The French race has even made inroads into the online game "Second Life."
Royal's supporters, following an example set by the extreme-right National Front party, this month opened a swish, open-plan office in "Second Life," a virtual world where users create avatars of themselves, move about, chat, buy land, build homes and do business.
"Come in large numbers and you'll find me there," Royal said in an online video posting to inaugurate the virtual headquarters. Visitors there can pick up badges marked, "Segolene Royal for France." It drew a steady stream of visitors last week, who chatted among themselves on such issues as France's place in the European Union.
The "Second Life" presence of the anti-immigration, ultra-nationalist National Front has prompted protests and even violent virtual clashes between supporters and opponents.
One group of players _ who call themselves "Second Life Left Unity" _ moved in next to the National Front's office and vowed to carry out protests there "until FN go or are ejected."
The National Front later moved to another section of the virtual world because, they say, their new premises are more spacious. The party's "Second Life" presence is managed by Cyril Parisi, a 26-year-old who says he voted Socialist at the last presidential election in 2002 but joined the Front's youth wing last year after concluding that "the right and the left are just different sides to the same system."
For the National Front, the Internet offers a way to circumvent what it says is the anti-Front bias of traditional French media. It was quick to spot the Internet's political potential, setting up its first Web site in the mid-1990s.
In cyberspace, "we can make ourselves heard, which isn't the case in the official media," said Parisi.
Mainstream parties have taken cues from election campaigns in the United States and elsewhere and, most of all, from France's stunning referendum "no" vote in 2005 against a proposed constitution for the European Union. The text's critics made particularly effective use of the Internet, blind-siding the French establishment, which pushed for a "yes," largely through more traditional media. The relatively high penetration of the Internet in France helps make vigorous online debate possible _ close to half of French households are connected.
Arnaud Dassier, whose company manages part of Sarkozy's cyber-campaign and created the "disco sarko" site, said the Internet's ability to reach voters could be decisive if the election turns out to very tight. A second-round runoff between Royal and Sarkozy is the most widely expected scenario.
"Disco sarko" was launched in December and is attracting some 4,000 hits a day, Dassier said. Sarkozy himself gave the green light, after asking his wife what she thought of it. "It made him laugh," said Dassier. The site encourages visitors to leave their name and e-mail address by saying, "If you are a fan of disco sarko, sign up to find out everything about his life."
Sarkozy's camp and the Socialists aim to have collected at least 1 million e-mail addresses each by polling day. The Socialists had no such database in 2002 and so couldn't use the Internet to warn and mobilize their supporters when signs very late in the race began to foretell that their candidate, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, was headed for a humiliating third-place finish, behind the National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen and Chirac.
In a close vote, the Internet "can make the difference between
winning or losing," said Dassier. "The whole goal of collecting e-mails is to bring the campaign to life and, most of all, to bombard our supporters in the last days, telling them, 'Don't forget to vote, get people around you to vote.'"