The French president seemingly appeared from nowhere last year. His rise offers lessons to anybody looking to emulate his success.
On 7 April 2016, Emmanuel Macron took to the stage in front of a few hundred people in his hometown of Amiens and proposed something that even he admitted “might seem a bit crazy here tonight”. He was starting a national political movement. The economy minister of 20 months, who had never stood before in an election, sensed an opportunity. “I don’t know if it’s going to work,” admitted the then-38-year-old.
Just over a year later, he had become president, and his party, En Marche, swept the national assembly in one of the biggest peacetime transformations of French politics.
Macron and his team were inspired by Barack Obama’s trailblazing jump from little-known senator to US president. But Obama did it the traditional way, coming up through the existing party system. When a longstanding mentor suggested to Macron that he should build himself a political fiefdom first, perhaps by running a large city, he was dismissive. “You’re talking about yesterday’s world. It doesn’t work like that now,” he replied.
The admirer of Californian start-up culture had spotted what was obvious from democracies across the world: we are in an age of political innovation, when newcomers are able to upend the status quo in record time. Having transformed communications, friendships, sex and business, the effects of the internet and social media are now being fully felt in the political world.
Across Europe and beyond, from the Czech Republic’s ANO to Spain’s Podemos to US president Donald Trump, new political offerings have emerged as technological changes have made it easier than ever to raise money and disseminate a programme – the traditional role of parties.
France, the country of revolution, is once again a leading political laboratory. Macron is the most vivid example yet of a modern-day political disruptor. Not only did he create a victorious party from scratch in record time, he also won with a progressive centrist manifesto at a time of surging rightwing nationalism.
As such, he provides lessons for those seeking to follow in his footsteps – and there are many. The firm that designed his grassroots campaign, Liegey Muller Pons, has been inundated with requests for help.
So what do you need to succeed – in addition to good fortune? And could Britain, where pro-European sympathisers are hoping for a saviour, produce its own Macron?
First, you need an angry electorate and the political space created when existing parties fail to address the concerns of a large section of the population. The US and France were ripe for political upheaval in 2016 and 2017; wealthy, stable Germany less so.
Second, any movement needs a dynamic figurehead. Macron is no political showman, but his powers of seduction – a mixture of good looks, maturity and “an almost juvenile, joyous side” one ex-colleague told me – are admired even by many of his opponents. Future disruptors are increasingly likely to come from the worlds of showbiz, business or even sport.
But charisma alone is not enough. Brands and politicians today yearn for something more powerful: authenticity. Today’s consumers want the “real”, not the phoney, and demand transparency. Macron has willingly exposed his personal life, allowing his wedding video to be broadcast and inviting fly-on-the-wall documentary teams to follow him around. He also used his own story of “transgression” – his marriage to his former school teacher, 24 years his senior – to back up his image as a political maverick.
This desire for authenticity favours untarnished youth – see Austria’s new 31- year-old chancellor-in-waiting – or people perceived as coming from outside the grubby world of politics.
Many of the new political entrepreneurs will also be brash. In a noisy and hyperbolic world, you need to cut through the din. As Macron likes to say: “If you’re shy, you’re dead.” This explains his sometimes brutal language, or his promises to “transform” France and “refound” the European Union. But this tactic comes with a caveat: over-blown rhetoric will lead to disappointment if expectations aren’t met.
Being charismatic, confident and distinctive are good starting points. Next comes the organisational work.
The internet offers formidable scope for raising money. But scaling up a movement requires major resources. This favours anyone able to tap personal wealth, or in Macron’s case, a network of bankers and business people who turbocharged En Marche in its first crucial months.
Developing a coherent vision is also key. Single-issue or unfocused movements are eventually sapped by their divisions. Macron made all members of En Marche sign a charter setting out four broad commitments that shaped the party: pro-Europe, pro-private enterprise, progressive and attached to the notion of “kindness”.
His team was also aware that the internet, for all its ability to network people, can often feel like a lonely place. En Marche’s strength was offering openness online – no fees, easy registration – followed by mass door-knocking exercises and local brainstorming sessions.
Lastly, every leader needs a team of believers. When he launched En Marche, Macron had secretly assembled a core of around 10 aides in their 20s and 30s who helped run operations with what cynics saw as almost sect-like devotion.
Each country will have its specificities, but this new age of political innovation will undoubtedly produce more Macrons – and more Trumps. It will also allow their opponents to organise resistance more easily.
New parties will be ephemeral, composing and decomposing over time. And they will have difficulties providing followers with the tribal sense of belonging offered by an established political machine. For all its electoral success, En Marche’s roots remain shallow.
So could Brexit Britain produce a Macron figure?
There are many reasons to doubt it in the short-term. Parliamentary rather than presidential systems are a trickier proposition. Given the power of the rightwing media, a British Macron could not expect the often favourable coverage accorded the French original. And Jeremy Corbyn’s positioning on the left as an “outsider” has already attracted many of the disillusioned voters a new entrant would need.
Centrist well-wishers on the continent live in hope, but have been left puzzled. Like watching the Eurovision song contest and wondering why musical powerhouse Britain puts forward such dismal acts, they question why a country whose past includes such illustrious leaders looks so bereft of political talent. But the same might have been said of France until Macron made his “crazy” speech on a stage in Amiens.