'N**gas in Paris' a winning campaign ad or offensive 'ethnic' marketing?

Could a song by Jay-Z and Kanye West help improve the image of French presidential candidate Francois Hollande?

Story highlights

  • French candidate Francois Hollande stars in an online video with a profanity-laced rap song
  • The song, "N**gas in Paris," is by Jay-Z and Kanye West
  • Hollande's aide said it's not a campaign video, but she likes it
  • Analysts say the effort could help improve his image, but it could also backfire

Jay-Z and Kanye West's recent hit "Niggas in Paris" is about them. They rap about being so phenomenally rich, about how they "ball so hard," buy Rolexes and cars, pop gold bottles with models in Paris nightclubs, that the rest of us slobs couldn't fathom their lives.

It may seem like an odd choice for a campaign song for a politician trying to appeal to oppressed racial and ethnic minorities.

But it's apparently working for -- or at least not hurting -- Francois Hollande. The French Socialist eked out a win last Sunday in the first round of presidential voting to decide who will run France for the next five years. He will face President Nicolas Sarkozy in a run-off May 6.

This month, Hollande appeared in a slickly edited online video featuring West and Jay-Z's stadium anthem. In the video, Hollande -- who has been roundly criticized for his lack of charisma -- strides like a rock star amongst his black, Arab and multiethnic supporters in the working-class suburb of Creil.

"Got my niggas in Paris, and they going gorillas," West raps as Hollande is shown leading discussions between men in suits and then talking to voters of multiple races and ages. Crowds in the street and the subway smile excitedly as Hollande approaches them.

Supporters raise their voter cards to the camera. A man shouts, "To hell with Sarko!" - a common shorthand reference to Sarkozy.

A black woman holds the French flag and exclaims, "François, president! Inshallah, Inshallah!" -- Arabic for "God willing."

"We support François because he supports us," says a young black man wearing a hoodie. "All of Creil, all of us."

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A lyric in Jay-Z and Kanye's song sounds like "Creil," which is pronounced "cray," although the context suggests they mean "crazy."

Although the video appeared to be a campaign advertisement, the Hollande campaign denied producing it.

Hollande's video is edgy, has a good beat and shows people having a good time: all the ingredients for successful marketing. So what if it uses a racial slur, not to mention frequent profane and sexually degrading language?

Rob Angell, a lecturer at Wale's Cardiff Business School, says those things do matter.

The consumer behavior researcher said the song's racial slur is universally offensive. Using it, or being perceived as tacitly endorsing it, could backfire for Hollande.

"In France, 'negro' is definitely defamatory," he said. "It isn't a matter of whether or not minority Parisians or suburbanites are even able to make the translation."

The video has more than 300,000 YouTube views since its April 10th posting and has made numerous international headlines.

Hollande's campaign ad could be considered a form of ethnic or multicultural marketing.

The term generally refers to a kind of advertising that emerged several decades ago in the West. The idea was that in order to stay competitive, businesses had to pay greater attention to minorities' growing ability to buy. One example is McDonald's "I'm Lovin It!" campaign from a few years ago, which used hip-hop beats and more black and Latino actors in commercials to sell more burgers.

But translating this marketing technique to politics is tricky, Angell said.

He points to what became known as British Prime Minister David Cameron's "Hug a Hoodie" campaign in 2006. The Conservative leader was widely mocked when he urged politicians to try to understand what drove boys to wear hooded sweatshirts and to break the law. Other lawmakers roasted him, giving it the dismissive "Hug a Hoodie" name. Media pundits laughed it off, too.

"Cameron attempted to endear himself to this group, and their parents, by arguing that society cared," Angell said.

It didn't work because there was too much of a gap between the elite leaders of the country and the hooded youth for the latter group to feel like the gesture was sincere, Angell said.

In that respect, the Hollande video could be another toxic drop in a cauldron of already boiling tensions in Europe, France in particular.

It comes on the heels of an Amnesty International report that said Muslims in Europe face discrimination in education, employment and religious freedom, and as France's economy is limping due to a 12-year high unemployment rate and broader economic problems across the EU.

And France's working suburban class is complaining that it is getting the shortest end of the economic stick, leading to frustration with the current government. Hollande, who is favored to win the May 6 runoff, hopes to capitalize on voters' frustration by convincing them that his left-wing party will listen to and answer their concerns, he said.

Sarkozy has lost support, critics say, because some see him as insensitive to minorities.

When he first ran for president in 2005, he said that he'd like to wash out the suburbs "with a power hose." This year, Sarkozy was blasted for saying France has "too many foreigners" and vowing to limit benefits to legal migrants.

Shortly after he won his first term, riots erupted in Parisian suburbs. Roving gangs of young people clashed with police. Sarkozy called the rioters "scum," wording that his critics said didn't help the situation but only drove frustrated French further toward the edge.

In 2007, there was another, reportedly far worse outbreak of violence in the suburbs. Cars were torched, as was a car dealership and a library. More than 60 police officers were injured. Two teens on a motorcycle, both sons of African immigrants, were killed when their vehicle collided with a police car. That incident further enraged residents, particularly in the immigrant community.

More: Hollande, Sarkozy quizzed on immigration

Hollande has promised repeatedly to improve life in poorer neighborhoods, from renovating decrepit housing to providing jobs.

Lang said Hollande's campaign workers have studied how President Barack Obama used popular culture in his 2008 White House bid (culminating in a Jay-Z hit "My President is Black" after Obama won.)

One of the U.S. president's campaign slogans was "Change we can believe in." The subtitle of the Hollande video: Change is now.

French media have taken numerous critical looks at the video ad.

It's hard to buy that Hollande wasn't behind the ad, a France24 online editorial suggests.

"How do you get young non-white people to vote for you when you're a middle-aged balding white man? François Hollande has the answer," the post said. "Take a popular song by two famous U.S. rap stars. Film yourself surrounded by black and Arab voters who say 'big up.' Change your name to initials only. Get some Final Cut whiz kid to paste it all together with a load of fast-forward and zoom. Set up a YouTube account with the word 'crew' in it.

"The suburbs isn't only hooded youths who lap up American subculture and watch too much TV," France24 quotes a newspaper reader as saying. "There are also engineers, researchers, police officers and teachers here."

The YouTube video is signed #2H12CREW. The hashtag has been prominent as people tweet in many languages, trying to guess the identity of 2H12CREW.

Hollande's press officer Emilie Lang said, "We have heard that that it's artists in the Parisian suburbs (who produced the video), but we don't know."

"But I like it," she added. "A lot of people do."

To Angell, the racial slur in West and Jay-Z's song "is the hook, a variant of shock marketing."

And although using such an offensive term could backfire, he said, the approach can work if a campaign or a politician seems genuinely multi-culturally empathetic before the marketing stunt.

"I don't see this ending badly for Hollande at all," Angell said. "Quite the opposite."