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Blackout

In just a few hours, France will hold its breath. No more public appearances for the candidates for president, no more polls, no more politics in the media. By law, none of this will be authorized after midnight Friday, Paris time. Like an athlete before an important competition, 43 million French voters are invited to an ultimate moment of concentration.

Officially, this is called “délai de réflexion”. But for most people, it’s more like a media blackout, something between an insidious censorship and an old-fashioned rule that no government even dared to amend. Actually, this very rule has been amended a few years ago, to take into consideration the new providers of information. And frankly, the result couldn’t be worse. The amended law is just impossible to implement. French laws have a very limited impact on foreign television, and have no control at all over Web sites.

You can argue that no independent choice can be made under influence. What if, in 2002, some real-time estimation had shown the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen on its ways to the second round? Probably, some people would have changed their vote and Le Pen would not have made it. Not very democratic, whatever you think about Le Pen’s xenophobic ideas. This is, however, about to happen: Hundreds of bloggers have already announced that they will give the first trends on the outcome, before the closing of polling stations.

I still remember the good old days, back in the 70s. At that time, the blackout was a week long and my dad was buying foreign newspapers to get the latest polls and analysis. Now he’s the one who calls me to get the latest, from Net. My father is not a Web person. He reads Le Monde, in its paper edition.

That is the point, actually. Yes, all the information will be accessible on the Net, despite this ridiculous blackout, but only for the happy few. They’re quite a lot, I agree, as millions of French households have access to the Internet. But some don’t. Lower classes, citizen from the country side, retired people, non-English speakers, there are thousands of reasons why the Net is not (yet) accessible to the whole population.

In the end, only those who are informed by traditional French media will be concerned about these restrictions. Others won’t, which means that access to the relevant information will be unequal. In the best case, this blackout will be useless. In the worst case, it will be discrimination for those who have no access to the modern media. And in any case, it may be the last time that there is a blackout before a French presidential election.