How does a centrist insurgent candidate for president win a smashing middle class-centered majority in a political environment of populist extremes?
Well, Emmanuel Macron did just that in France in 2017. What are the ingredients to the improbable victory? Sophie Pedder, the Paris Bureau chief of The Economist, lays it all out in the political biography of the year in her compelling “Revolution Française: Emmanuel Macron and the quest to reinvent a nation.” It is a narrative of political ascent and the dynamics behind an insurgent rise to power that is sure to be studied by political consultants across the world as a guidebook on both the dynamics of the man and the mechanics behind his centrist electoral landslide, a victory that left not only the executive branch in his hands but the parliament within his majority.
Pedder divides her narrative into two halves: the first is entitled “Conquest” and the second “Power.”
France has a two-round, winner-take-all presidential election system. In the first round, the French right wing under Marine Le Pen and the left wing under Jean-Luc Melanchon and other leftists remnants got a combined vote—right and left—in the high forties, about the same as in Italy. But in the a first-past-the-post second round, Macron won with 66 percent of the vote. The results could not be clearer: France consolidated behind a powerful executive while Italy wound up with the double-humped camel of a coalition populist government of the right and left.
Macron consolidated his power when his political party En Marche took 54 percent of the seats in the National Assembly and over 60 percent counting allied parties. Macron has more centralized political power at his direction than any other western political leader. Two years before this electoral coup, Macron and his political party were politically nonexistent. Some story!
Macron built his political victory on a two-step, social-media-based strategy that created a charismatic political star who first attracted attention and then support. The strategy was to run the new political organization like a “start up” with lots of market research and bottom-up feedback. Initial feedback came in the summer of 2016 when the nascent organization held a townhall in Paris. By asking for citizen input on how to fix politics, the townhall turned into an overflow success. Next was a nationwide door knocking campaign asking voters for opinions and attitudes; the Macron volunteers recorded answers in tablets and on smartphone and the results went instantaneously fed up to the Paris server. In the Macron political organization with its powerful but flat social media Paris always knew what everyone was doing while local committees were free to undertake their political work. Among the Paris cognoscenti, the Socialist Party grandees sneered at the door knocking. But the Macron organization learned by listening that the vast preponderance of French voters were utterly disgusted with politicians. National momentum built-up from this on-the-ground political work and its call for a true insurgent political revolution.
Macron yoked the desire for new outsider political leadership to a moderately progressive political agenda and an entirely new political party, very citizen based, and led the movement to a smashing centrist victory. Macron and his “metro-chic” advisers may have been very elite but they were highly differentiated away from the Paris-centric political establishment.
In classic Silicon Valley start-up lingo, Macron and his followers were the “new new.”
book review by Paul A. Myers at myersbooks-history.com