How Obama Won The French Election


French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La Republique En Marche, won a resounding victory Sunday in the final round of the country’s parliamentary elections, gaining a commanding majority in the National Assembly.

The victory, which dramatically reshapes French politics, is particularly remarkable given that Macron’s party is just a year old and many of its elected representatives are new to government. Macron himself was practically unknown a year ago. But amid a fracturing of support for France’s traditionally powerful parties, En Marche successfully presented itself as a party able to transcend left-right political divides to bring reform. 

En Marche created both a presidential and a parliamentary campaign that mimicked the campaign of then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in 2008 ― with young candidates pledging change and a large grassroots movement of volunteers getting out the vote. Behind the scenes, the parallel was even more explicit, as Macron employed a political consulting firm called Liegey Muller Pons to bring U.S.-style voter outreach strategy and data collection methods reminiscent of Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns into French politics.

The consulting firm’s founders, Vincent Pons, Arthur Muller and Guillaume Liegey, met while at Harvard and MIT and had spent time as canvassers for Obama’s data-driven ground game. While volunteering and observing how the Obama campaign ran, they began to note its extensive use of data, door-to-door canvassing and recording of information from voters.

Pons, who went door-to-door in New Hampshire in 2012, told HuffPost he was struck by the level of professionalism and technology in Obama’s campaign as compared to French elections. Pons, Liegey and Muller focused their firm on taking some of the methods they’d witnessed in the U.S. and bringing them back to France.

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For Macron, Liegey Muller Pons developed an algorithm based on census data and past election results to help En Marche pinpoint neighborhoods in France that were indicative of the country as a whole. Macron’s party then sent tens of thousands of volunteers to speak with potential voters in those areas during 2016, and used these visits as a kind of mass focus group to determine what issues the electorate cared about.

“The effort was not meant to persuade and mobilize voters to support [Macron],” Pons, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, told HuffPost. “The intention was instead to have a discussion with voters and bridge the gap between politics and voters.”

En Marche recorded tens of thousands of conversations, using the resulting data to craft Macron’s policy platform and communications strategy. It also planted an early seed in key neighborhoods and helped build a base of volunteers and staff that it could use in its official election campaign this year. Liegey Muller Pons provided analysis on this data to further inform the campaign’s strategy.

Pons believes that the process of canvassing and voter engagement outside of the election cycle ― something not previously done in France ― allowed Macron to reach disillusioned citizens who would have otherwise ignored last-minute appeals to vote. It also created an image of a party willing to hear the grievances of voters, even before they were formally asking for a vote in return.

En Marche and Macron ran on a platform that combined centrist, pro-European Union policies with promises of reform and a change from establishment parties. Unlike the more radical campaigns run by the far-left and far-right candidates, which attracted a high percentage of the youth vote, En Marche received an almost even distribution of voters across age demographics. The party did especially well in major cities and with educated voters.

“The success of En Marche shows that you can also provide a powerful answer by having someone who has reasonable ideas, progressive ideas, but who brings a change simply because he doesn’t have a large political background and is going to present a number of new faces and new candidates,” Pons said.

Bertrand Guay / POOL New / Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a ceremony at the Mont Valerien memorial in Suresnes, near Paris, June 18, 2017.

Macron, a banker and former Socialist minister, came from relative obscurity to upend French politics, defeating established party candidates and far-right leader Marine Le Pen to win the presidency last month. But even after his win, Macron still needed a parliamentary majority in order to avoid a gridlocked government and a diminished presidency.

En Marche fielded more than 14,000 applications from people seeking to run for Parliament. Around half of the party’s 526 candidates are new to politics, and 266 of them are women. La Republique En Marche candidates ended up easily securing a majority on Sunday, as projections showed the party and its centrist ally the MoDems on pace to secure at least 355 seats out of the chamber’s 577.

Even as low voter turnout in parliamentary elections took some sheen off the strong showing, the results still suggest that Macron’s party will have the numbers to enact the wide-ranging reforms promised during the campaign.

But public backlash to some of Macron’s pro-business reforms is likely, and the low turnout is not a good sign for French enthusiasm toward its current politics. France’s powerful trade unions have in the past rallied millions of people to the streets over proposed policy changes, and the unions have cautioned Macron against pushing through labor reforms too swiftly. 

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