PARIS -- One French presidential contender wants you to chuckle at his expense with a website that shows a virtual version of the usually straight-laced candidate disco-dancing.
Supporters of his Socialist opponent have set up a virtual office in a popular online game, complete with handout badges and a steady stream of visitors.
Presidential contenders -- led by Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Ségolène 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 race is also playing into concerns that image management is trumping concrete and coherent debate about the nation's many social and economic problems.
Sarkozy's site www.discosarko.com is part of an effort to market the interior minister as hip and in touch with the times and to collect contact details from potential supporters. It asks visitors to leave e-mail addresses and mobile phone numbers so they can be reached ahead of the April-May presidential vote.
Royal's supporters, following an example set by the extreme-right National Front party, this month opened an office in "Second Life," a virtual world where users create avatars, 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, which drew a steady stream of visitors last week.
The "Second Life" presence of the anti-immigration, ultra-nationalist National Front has prompted protests and even aggressive 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 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 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, which set up its first website in the mid-1990s, the Internet offers a way to circumvent what it says is the anti-Front bias of traditional French media.
In cyberspace, "we can make ourselves heard," Parisi said.
Mainstream parties have taken cues from election campaigns in the United States and elsewhere and, most of all, from France's stunning referendum vote in 2005 against a proposed European Union constitution. The text's critics made particularly effective use of the Internet -- close to half of French households are connected -- blind-siding the French establishment, which pushed for support of the constitution largely through more traditional media.
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. A second-round runoff between Royal and Sarkozy is the most widely expected scenario.
Sarkozy's camp and the Socialists seek to collect at least 1 million e-mail addresses each by polling day. "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,' " Dassier said.