In an interview last summer, Steve Bannon said that his website, Breitbart News, planned to open a Paris bureau ahead of France’s 2017 presidential elections. Following the election of Donald Trump in November, Reuters reported that Breitbart hoped to fuel a similar upset in France, in support of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, is now a top adviser in the Trump White House, and France’s elections are less than three months away. Yet Breitbart still has yet to launch a French-language website. A 22-year-old student is hoping to keep it that way.
The student, who asked to be identified only as Antonin, bought the domain name breitbart.fr following the US election, along with two other related domains: breitbartnews.fr and breitbartnewsnetwork.fr. In an interview at a cafe outside Paris on Saturday, Antonin said he bought the domains in a bid to limit Breitbart’s influence over the French presidential elections, which begin in April.
“I was really afraid, because I thought it could work really well in France.”
“When I saw that they wanted to launch in France I was really afraid, because I thought it could work really well in France,” Antonin said. “So I immediately went to [French web hosting provider] OVH and saw that the domain name was available.”
Antonin says that no one from Breitbart has contacted him about buying the domains, and he says he wouldn’t sell them even if he received a lucrative offer. He’s thinking about redirecting breitbart.fr to nonprofit organizations that combat racism and anti-Semitism — both of which have been linked to Breitbart’s coverage. “I thought it could be funny,” he says, adding: “It’s weird that they didn’t buy it.”
Bannon took a leave of absence from Breitbart last summer after being named CEO of the Trump campaign, and stepped down from the company after Trump’s victory. Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart became a haven for the alt-right, an amorphous far-right movement with strains of white nationalism. The company has been eyeing international expansions for months — Bannon described France as “the place to be” in a July interview with Radio Londres — and had planned to launch sites in both France and Germany by January 2017, according to The Economist. (Germany will hold nationwide elections in September.) Online, however, there is little sign of activity in either country, and Breitbart’s failure to secure the .fr domains ahead of its purported French launch raises questions about its European ambitions.
“Check back with us in a couple months.”
When asked about Breitbart’s plans to expand in Europe, a spokesperson said in an email that there is “nothing to report yet,” but advised to “check back with us in a couple months.” The spokesperson could not comment on whether Breitbart’s French and German coverage will be published under Breitbart.com or on standalone websites.
Breitbart currently has bureaus in Jerusalem and London, both of which are accessible as URL extensions (breitbart.com/jerusalem and breitbart.com/london). It’s possible that the company’s French and German coverage would be hosted under similar extensions, rather than under separate domain names, though Breitbart does own the breitbart.co.uk domain, which redirects to its London page.
Failing to secure a domain can be costly. Squatters typically buy up domains for financial gain, and they can demand exorbitant sale prices. Rand Paul had to pay $100,000 for ownership of RandPaul.com in 2015; Pizza.com sold for a reported $2.6 million in 2008. Other squatters, like Antonin, have used their domain ownership to make political statements or troll opponents. In 2015, carlyfiorina.org displayed a scroll of 30,000 frowny emoticons — one for every employee then-presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina laid off during her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Later in the Republican primary, someone bought JebBush.com and redirected it to Donald Trump’s campaign website.
Some Breitbart-related German domains are already taken, as well. Breitbart.de is owned by a German web hosting company, and its owner says that no one has approached him about buying the domain. The URL breitbartnews.de redirects to a Facebook page for Hooligans Gegen Satzbau — a German anti-extremist group that ironically corrects the grammar and syntax of far-right groups. That domain is registered to an owner in Cologne, according to online records, though The Verge was unable to determine their identity.
Launching in France would “undoubtedly complement” other far-right sites
As The Verge previously reported, there is already a large and growing group of far-right French news sites, which are collectively known as the “fachosphère.” Much like the alt-right movement in the US, sites such as FDesouche and Égalité et Réconciliation regularly publish articles with incendiary, anti-immigrant headlines, and they largely support Marine Le Pen’s National Front party. The movement arose during the mid-2000s as a reaction to the mainstream French media, which fachosphère supporters see as liberal and biased.
David Doucet, a French journalist who co-wrote a book on the fachosphère, says that although such sites have grown in size and influence in recent years, they still function as largely amateur operations, relying on online donations and sales of T-shirts or books. If and when Breitbart launches in France, he says, the far-right media landscape could change significantly.
“The injection of a professional site, with means comparable to traditional media, that would change the game a bit,” says Doucet, who is also the editor-in-chief of French culture magazine Les Inrocks. He notes that due to their limited finances, most fachosphere sites act as news aggregators, cherry-picking stories from the mainstream media and rewriting them under exaggerated headlines. Breitbart would have the means to produce original content and reporting, which Doucet says would “undoubtedly complement other platforms.”
“I think it’s really dangerous.”
Unlike the US, where presidential primaries and campaigns can seem interminable, France’s election cycles are relatively compact affairs. The Socialist Party primary concluded on Sunday, and the first round of elections will be held on April 23rd. (A second round run-off would take place on May 7th.) Doucet says that still leaves Breitbart with plenty of time to wield influence over the French media, though he says the site’s mysterious silence, together with Trump’s apparent disinterest in French politics, have raised doubts about its intentions.
“I don’t know if they actually place much importance on France,” Doucet said in an interview this week. “When we see speeches from Donald Trump, he talks about Angela Merkel but not about Francois Hollande.” He also points to Le Pen’s recent appearance to Trump Tower, where she was seen sipping coffee in the lobby of the building, but reportedly did not meet with Trump.
Kurt Bardella, a former Breitbart spokesman who left the company in protest last year, said in an email that he’s uncertain about the company’s current plans for Europe, though he suspects “their objective is to continue to grow what they've done here in the US on a global scale and become the centralizing hub/platform for the so-called ‘anti-establishments.’”
Antonin, meanwhile, remains committed to keeping his domains out of Breitbart’s hands. He says he doesn’t adhere to a particular political party, and isn’t sure who he’s going to vote for in April. But he says he’s grown dismayed at the open racism and xenophobia that some of his friends at school have faced following the 2015 Paris attacks — something he fears could only become more common if Breitbart gains a foothold in France.
“I think it’s dangerous to have an organization that is really organized and well-funded with this kind of purpose,” Antonin says. “I think it’s really dangerous.”