French voters received spam signed by minister

Nicolas Sarkozy, [CQ] French minister of the interior, may have fallen foul of two French laws in a political spamming incident. That wouldn’t look good on the record of the man in charge of the country’s police forces.

French laws governing Internet usage are, perhaps, stricter than in many other countries — particularly the U.S., where bulk unsolicited political e-mail is common.

In addition to his ministerial role, Sarkozy is also president of the UMP, the political party holding the majority in the French Parliament. To boost party recruitment, he chose to run the country’s first major political recruitment campaign over the Internet, sending tens of thousands of e-mail messages. The messages, signed in his name, invited the recipients to help define the party’s policies for the 2007 legislative and presidential elections.

The list of addresses used were supposedly opt-in lists, bought from commercial database vendors, but as it turned out, some of the addressees hadn’t opted in to such mailings. That makes sending messages to them against the law in France.

There’s another twist: A law voted by Sarkozy’s party legalizes mass mailing — but only authorizes this for commercial messages. Sending bulk political messages is not covered by this law, so such messages must only be sent to people having expressly requested to receive them in order to be legal — which was apparently not the case with this mailing.

Previous political mailing operations, carried out mostly by opposition parties, were addressed to lists of political activists who had signed up to receive political newsletters. Sarkozy’s e-mail went beyond that, using commercial mailing lists from third parties.

Victims of the mass mailing have filed complaints with the courts and the French Data Protection Authority.

The enquiry will establish the responsibility of each party involved in this bizarre affair, and verify the opt-in status of the databases used.

The victims of Sarkozy’s spam have set up a Web site to help one another seek legal redress:

(Lemaire tracks the spam to its source in his blog for Le Monde Informatique magazine: