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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Why the Macron Hacking Attack Landed With a Thud in France


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Police officers near a newsstand on the Champs-Élysées on Monday. So far, the French news media has avoided reporting details of the hacking attack on Emmanuel Macron's campaign. Credit Eric Gaillard/Reuters

PARIS — Maybe it was the suspect timing of the leaked documents. Or the staggering amount and possibility that some were fake. Or a feeling among the French that, having witnessed how hacking may have altered the American election, they would not fall for the same ploy.

Whatever the reasons, newspapers and broadcasters in France have so far conspicuously avoided reporting any details of what was described on Friday night as a "massive" pre-election hacking attack on Emmanuel Macron's campaign.

The bereft coverage extended into Monday night, well after a 44-hour legal ban on election reporting surrounding the Sunday vote had lifted.

By then it was clear that the hacked material — regardless of what it might contain — had caused no ill effects on the campaign of Mr. Macron, who won decisively over the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

The contrast with the United States presidential campaign was sharp: Hacking of Hillary Clinton that was traced to Russia may have played a role in her defeat by Donald J. Trump, but news of the hacking in France was met with silence, disdain and scorn.

The contrast may have been amplified further by the absence of a French equivalent to the thriving tabloid culture in Britain or the robust right-wing broadcast media in the United States, where the Clinton hacking attack generated enormous negative coverage.

"We don't have a Fox News in France," said Johan Hufnagel, managing editor of the leftist daily Libération. "There's no broadcaster with a wide audience and personalities who build this up and try to use it for their own agendas."

He also said that French voters, with the benefit of hindsight, were suspicious of destabilizing developments like the ones that may have affected the vote in the American presidential election and Britain's so-called Brexit referendum last June to leave the European Union.

"French voters didn't want to get into that game," Mr. Hufnagel said. "They were mentally prepared after Trump and Brexit and the Russians, even if it's not clear they're behind it."

Some Macron supporters initially feared that the reports of the hacking and his inability to respond could be devastating on the eve of voting.

The hacking lit up social media, especially in the United States, where far-right activists have joined together to spread extremist messages in Europe.

On Election Day, the French-language version of Sputnik, the Russian news outlet, played up social media coverage of the leaks.

But the leaks did not get much traction in France, where news outlets respected the blackout. The documents landed at the 11th hour, without time for journalists to scrutinize them before the ban went into effect.

The news media also heeded an admonition by the government's campaign regulatory body not to publish false news. Mr. Macron's campaign said that fake documents had been mixed in with authentic ones.

There were also reports that Mr. Macron's campaign, well aware that it was a hacking target, had deliberately fed hackers false information in responding to phishing emails, which may explain why the leaked data was disseminated late in the campaign.

"You can flood these addresses with multiple passwords and logins, true ones, false ones, so the people behind them use up a lot of time trying to figure them out," The Daily Beast quoted Mounir Mahjoubi, the head of Mr. Macron's digital team, as saying.

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Mr. Hufnagel said that Libération would take time to evaluate and verify the leaked documents before writing any articles.

Le Monde, the country's leading daily, said in an article published Saturday that it would also scrutinize the leaked material before writing.

"If those documents contain revelations, Le Monde, of course, will publish them, after having investigated in accordance with our journalistic and ethical rules, without letting ourselves be manipulated by the publishing agenda of anonymous actors," the newspaper said.

After that blackout ended Sunday night, most news outlets said only that the French authorities had opened an investigation.

That reticence stretched across the landscape of newspapers in France, regardless of political leaning. Several weekly newsmagazines — the conservative Le Point, the centrist L'Express and the left-leaning L'Obs — also held back.

The Macron campaign has said little about the hacking and leaks beyond a statement late Friday night — just minutes before the blackout began — describing the operation as "massive and coordinated" and an effort to destabilize French democracy.

For now, it appears the attack turned up mostly mundane documents. Although the coverage has hardly been comprehensive, no real smoking guns have been uncovered.

"The good news is that there was an attempt at destabilization that didn't work," said Céline Pigalle, the top editor at BFM-TV, a private broadcaster. "The elements weren't strong enough. But what would have happened if they had been?"

Ms. Pigalle said the late-breaking document dump provided a reason to revise the news blackout law. It was created to give citizens time to reflect before voting, but in the era of social media, it gives anyone with a Twitter account an edge over France's respected news outlets.

"It denies the world as it exists today, when social media don't stop," she said.

The National Front, Ms. Le Pen's party, has a vexed relationship with the mainstream news media, which it has at once scorned and used.

Ms. Le Pen and her aides have at times floated conspiracy theories, asserting — without evidence — that Mr. Macron had an offshore bank account, for instance. But her campaign did not have enough time after news of the hacking attack became public to seize on any damaging findings.
Just before the campaign blackout deadline, a senior National Front official, Florian Philippot, said on Twitter: "Will Macron leaks teach us things that investigative journalism deliberately killed? It's shocking, this shipwreck of democracy."

But his message came across as a last-minute act of desperation. On a popular morning radio show on France Inter on Monday, the journalist Léa Salamé asked a National Front official, Nicolas Bay, about Mr. Philippot's post on Twitter. Mr. Bay said that the methods used to disseminate the Macron campaign documents might be questionable, but that it was important to discover their contents. The conversation ended there.

The National Front does not have the equivalent of a Bill O'Reilly or a Sean Hannity, the right-wing commentators who helped shore up Mr. Trump's presidential bid. While French commentators such as Éric Zemmour, a regular on radio and television who has a column in Le Figaro, have fed into a sense of decline and insecurity that the National Front tried to capitalize on politically, neither he nor other so-called neo-reactionary commentators endorsed the far-right party.

In the United States, reaction to the Macron leaks was more animated, and Hillary Clinton took to Twitter to comment. "Victory for Macron, for France, the EU, & the world. Defeat to those interfering w/democracy. (But the media says I can't talk about that)."
Follow Rachel Donadio on Twitter @RachelDonadio.


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