'Non' campaign wins the battle of the blogs    

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One says that a vote for the EU constitution would please George Bush; another uses a computer game format with arrows from a "yes" vote to a "game over" box. Not only are French opponents of the EU constitution ahead in the opinion polls they are also winning the battle of the blogs.

One says that a vote for the EU constitution would please George Bush; another uses a computer game format with arrows from a "yes" vote to a "game over" box. Not only are French opponents of the EU constitution ahead in the opinion polls they are also winning the battle of the blogs.

With four weeks to go until France's crucial verdict on the EU constitution in a national referendum, Europe's political elite are coming to terms with a new fact: the battle may yet be won and lost in cyberspace.

Both sides of the debate are using the internet, but it is the "no" campaign that seems to have sparked the imagination of French bloggers, with their conspiratorial, informal, anti-establishment websites. Opponents of the constitution are exploiting the new medium to present themselves as younger, trendier and more passionate about their cause than "yes" voters.

The burgeoning power of bloggers to transform the political landscape became clear in Canada last month when a judge attempted to ban the reporting of the testimony of a key witness in hearings into a political scandal that threatens to topple the Liberal government of Paul Martin. The Canadian press obeyed the order but details of the testimony were published by a blogger in neighbouring Minnesota, beyond the reach of Canadian law. The judge was compelled to lift the black-out and what was then revealed, involving millions of dollars of kickbacks paid to the Liberal Party by advertising firms in Quebec, has led to a crisis for Mr Martin that may well lead to early elections this summer.

In the European Commission, which is becoming increasingly concerned about the prospect of a "no" vote in France, the trend has been noticed. This week the EU's website, Europa, hit back with a French version of the weekly blog produced by the European Commission vice-president Margot Wallström.

"It was a gesture towards the French", said Ms Wallström's spokesman Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, "since all eyes are on the French referendum".

The Commission's reaction reflects the growing importance of blogs, websites that allow comments to be posted within seconds and encourage unscripted and spontaneous debates.

Mr Dowgielewicz argues: "You could see in the American presidential elections that bloggers were able to set the agenda. This is a very attractive way to communicate a message that could not be heard otherwise. Serious newspapers would not publish something in that form but you can put a string of comments on a blog. This phenomenon will be increasingly relevant to politics in the EU."

A look at one of the French blogs: www.pourmoicestnon.com (it's "no" for me) shows a host of complaints about the text which, though drafted by the former French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, is being portrayed by its opponents as a victory for Anglo-Saxon free-market economics.

"For me it's no, no, no, I do not want this [economically] liberal Europe!? No, no, no," says Laurent Bicep, a student. André Bichot, who describes himself as a retired diplomat agrees: "No. It is not the Europe I dream of."

The comments of les bloggeurs reflect the widespread malaise at economic conditions in France and the fear that jobs will be lost to eastern Europe. In a nation of 24 million internet users, few doubt the importance of the internet particularly with young voters and the "yes" campaign is trying to counter-attack.

Responding to criticism of its lacklustre campaign for the constitution, the UMP centre-right party of the French President, Jacques Chirac, has produced a website specifically to campaign for a "yes".

Meanwhile Ms Wallström is said to be "extremely satisfied" with her blog which, her office says, has had more than 60,000 hits. Despite the new French version, its impact on the referendum may not be massive, however. Yesterday only two of the comments by bloggers were in French.

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