The first round of the French presidential elections will take place tomorrow and the way things stand at the moment, the competition will be between Marine Le Pen (Front National), Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!), Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France insoumise) and François Fillon (Les Républicains).
Macron’s campaign is probably the most unlikely of all campaigns, with Macron being both the youngest presidential candidate and, at the outset, the least probable candidate. However, as Politico already detailed, the “momentum” that propelled him to the top of the polls, and possibly the presidency, is probably the most striking aspect of his campaign. The investigation into the employment of François Fillon’s wife and children, the historic discord in the socialist party, and the unpopularity of the current president, François Hollande, as well as the specter of a far right Marine Le Pen reaching for the presidency certainly facilitated the way for a candidate calling himself both “progressive” and “centrist” – which is underlined by the proposal of an alliance with François Bayrou, the center’s candidate for decades.
After having launched the En Marche! movement in April 2016, without declaring any overt bids for the presidency (he was still minister in Manuel Valls’ cabinet at that time) the main tenet was already declared: A movement “neither left, nor right”. Shortly after, he quit his cabinet post whilst still not having declared his bid for the presidency officially and started working fully with En Marche!, a move deemed irresponsible, even crazy by French media at the time. He was not credited to stand a realistic chance in the general election, especially not against whomever would materialize as frontrunner for Les Républicains.
In November, he officially declared his candidacy and published, as is French custom, a book entitled “revolution”.
The question thus is: What changed? Why did Emmanuel Macron become the favorite for the French presidency?
Having, prior to the presidential bid, toured France to make an “assessment” of its state, his program seemed “radically moderate”; which fits the narrative Macron would like to convey: Neither left, nor right. While the tour itself seemed all too familiar to what other presidential hopefuls did at the same time (one might remind oneself of Sarkozy’s touring to “listen to the French people”), En Marche! did something different: Leveraging big data to assess what the French deemed important, what needed to change, how to engage people (etc.) with the help of a start-up (who could have guessed such a move by a candidate championing for entrepreneurship…) working in political strategy.
From there on, the message and communication strategy that would be needed to reach potential voters as well as recruiting new members took shape. Even more interesting is the fact that, while the movement only exists for less than 1,5 years now, it has already twice the number of members of the French socialists (247.000 vs. 131.000). This strong grassroots movement is probably one of the key elements of the campaign. in fact advertises with similar results in German elections in Bavaria as references, thus one might imagine that their input was valuable in community building exercises.
Along with this approach came a refusal to be considered as leaning to either the socialists (of whom he once was a member!) or the Republicans. Instead, En Marche! and consequently Macron himself styled themselves as “progressivists”, contrasting with all other parties and candidates. This is in line with the concurrent theme of “meeting” (rassembler) the French electorate and, the French population at large. Indeed, Macron focuses on the difference not between left and right, but between progressivists and reactionaries.
The information available about the way En Marche! operates is probably most important to understand what sets his campaign apart. The months and weeks leading to the release of Macron’s Manifesto were particularly insightful. En Marche!’s HQ was notoriously busy coordinating the efforts led by numerous civil-society based mini think-tanks, whose ideas eventually, through several filters, wound up in the body elaborating on the manifesto. Critical voices claim that the collaborative aspects of this only related to the general ideas, not specific policies. The specifics, they allege, are decided by either Macron himself or a small group at the inner circle of En Marche!, which at first included his wife Brigitte, but who has subsequently been less present in the campaign, as François Fillon’s wife contributed with interviews to the crumbling of Fillon’s campaign (reported in le Canard enchainé).
The people involved naturally did not have a party apparatus behind them with the necessary resources – one could certainly call the organigram more alike a start-up than a political party. At the outset, 15 people were key to the establishment of the overall operations. These people had worked with Macron previously and were no newcomers to En Narche’s scene. Thus, a relatively small “core” of En Marche! members took care of operations and weekly jour-fixes, while a much larger group of “Helpers” (more than 100 people in the HQ alone, and even more all over Europe) worked alongside the core team. Even though, it seems as if this set-up centered more on Macron himself during the last weeks, as was reported recently in the Figaro. During the campaign, experts, advisors and press secretaries, from both rival parties and the public or private sector were added to the team. It remains to be seen what their role in an eventual government may be, but it seems as if these posts were neither planned, nor was there a clear objective when the hiring happened (but again, the pull-effect of an organization like En Marche! may very well contribute greatly to a sudden availability of competence and capabilities – resources that any organization should not leave untapped). In particular, En Marche! proved able to recruit French citizens with experience abroad (Laurence Haim, journalist accredited to the White House & Axelle Tessandier, entrepreneuse who worked in Silicon Valley both joined En Marche! from the US). This “global” attitude contrasts with the other campaigns largely confined to France. A recent phone-call with Barack Obama reinforced, much to Macron’s delight, this attitude. In return, Donald Trump expressed his support for Marine Le Pen, which, given the current popularity of the US president on the continent, could very well backfire. Indeed, when Laurence Haim draws comparisons between Barack Obama’s first election and Macron’s current bid, some similarities can be seen.
As a fun fact, Benoit Hamon (the socialist candidate) dubbed En Marche!’s ambitions as a “public tender offer on the Elysée” due to the corporate and global nature of its operations.
One might think that this campaign style seems more in line with the way campaigns are set up in the US – strong grass-roots movements, hierarchical organization, centering on the messenger, usage of big-data to elaborate both key messages and pledges. This weekend, Macron’s team launched 6 Million phone-calls explaining his manifesto “This is Emmanuel Macron calling…” to French voters – a strategy both common and disliked in the US.
Yannis Theile studies economic law, political sciences, sociology and economics at SciencesPo in Paris, France. He is a member of the German Junge Liberale and the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit, where he currently focuses on connecting different actors in the liberal sphere. In addition, he is on Junge Liberale’s International Committee where he is co-responsible for the MENA region. He unwaveringly supports European Integration, which does not mean that the EU can live without reform…
If you’d like to get in touch with Yannis you can reach him on: firstname.lastname@example.org