After the electoral processes that shook the United States and the UK in 2016, the role of the media in this year's French presidential vote bears watching.

Just last week, the leading candidate on the right, Francois Fillon, told reporters he was the victim of a media campaign of "unheard-of violence".

He was referring to a story broken in an often-satirical magazine called Le Canard Enchaine about his wife being paid taxpayers' money for what appears to be an imaginary job.

If you set yourself up in opposition to the media, break with them, then you are no longer seen as being their ally. You become a rebel, on your own path, something that Marine Le Pen has always understood well.

Yvan Martinet, journalist, Envoye Special

Further to the right, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front (FN), has been watching with interest.

Her party's journey from the political fringes to the centre of attention has been aided by a noisy far-right subculture on social media that has her back.

This is all rather troubling for the French political establishment.

Having seen Donald Trump's triumph in the US, even as he was painted as a proxy for Russia's President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, the same narratives - fake news and the Russian menace - are now gaining traction on social media.

It seems that all that's missing in the political story unfolding in France is the middle ground.

If any party stands to benefit from the troubles of a leading conservative candidate like Fillon, it would arguably be FN.

Unlike the populist parties that have recently sprung up in Germany and Italy - presenting fresh challenges for journalists there - the FN has been on the ballot in France for 45 years.

Although the party still takes issue with what it calls hostile coverage from mainstream news outlets, its leader is proving far more skilled at the media game than her predecessor and father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, ever was.

"Her [Marine Le Pen] most extreme positions are covered quite badly by the traditional media, especially by broadcast media, whose mission is to not be divisive, so they do not emphasise her extremist views," said Arnaud Mercier, media professor at Universite Paris II.

"There was a time when this was justified - as they only represented 10 percent of voters. This position is harder to maintain today, when polls are showing 20, 25 percent, even 30 percent or more in some areas." 

Yvan Martinet, a journalist at Envoye Special, said: "The difference is that the Front National is much more presentable now. It is not about denouncing people from North Africa or black people any more. The narrative is now more about sovereignty, which is much softer.

"The difference between Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen, the father and the daughter, is the aplomb. Jean-Marie was bold enough to express his opinions. Marine usually holds back."

In a way, Le Pen can afford to pull back, knowing that there are other voices, online, saying the kind of things her father used to say.

A host of far-right websites and voices offer incendiary opinions - about immigrants and politicians deemed sympathetic towards them. Some are clearly fascists who support the FN and who dwell in what has come to be known as the "faschosphere".

"The 'fachosphere' launches attacks on all rival candidates, by creating a fake account with a Muslim first name followed by the candidate's last name: Farid Fillon, Ali Juppe, Bilal Hamon, Mohamed Macron," explains Mercier .

"The message is that all candidates except Marine Le Pen are pro-Muslim, too weak with Islam and Islamism, and this idea that every single Muslim is a potential terrorist." 

Therefore, it is a double move.

"On one side, there are the official campaign, in which the Front Nationale is very good. And there are also militants, not necessarily members of the party, who will conduct the kind of campaign the Front Nationale would probably not carry out themselves, because it is too xenophobic or Islamophobic," says Jules Darmanin, a Buzzfeed France journalist.

Contributors:

Yvan Martinet, journalist, Envoye Special

Arnaud Mercier, media professor, Universite Paris II

Jules Darmanin, journalist, Buzzfeed France

Michael Szadkowski, editor-in-chief, Lemonde.fr

Source: Al Jazeera News