The startup president: how Macron built a party like a business—and conquered France

He recruited candidates online and deployed slick videos—but the leader of En Marche! still avoids the word "party"

June 19, 2017
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“I want France to be a startup nation, meaning both a nation that works with and for the startups, but also a nation that thinks and moves like a startup,” declared the newly elected—and youngest ever—French president Emmanuel Macron last week at a tech conference in Paris. The statement summed up his vision, his movement, and the year he had spent setting it up from scratch after resigning from his Economy portfolio in François Hollande’s administration to rise to the presidency himself. 

On Sunday night, his movement turned political party, En Marche!, swept to 350 seats in the French parliament, l’Assemblée nationale, in the second round— an “absolute” majority far above the benchmark of 289 seats. Few other political parties, let alone one created only a year ago, have won such a majority in the French parliament. Since 1958, the only organisation that has scored higher is the centre-right allied parties, who won 398 seats in 2002—the year Jacques Chirac won the presidential election in a landslide protest vote against Jean-Marie Le Pen.

This isn’t the incredible landslide pollsters had predicted, with 400 to 450 seats. But just about a year ago, En Marche! was still a start-up at the first round of funding stage. Emmanuel Macron launched the then-movement on 6 April 2016, at a close-doors (although livestreamed on YouTube) event in his local Amiens, northern France. 

At the time described as a “club” or a “citizen initiative,” En Marche! was Macron’s cross-party attempt to “refound politics from the bottom”—a more conventional way of saying “make a presidential bid.” “It’s a bit of a crazy idea, I don’t know if this will work,” Macron, who was still Hollande’s Economy minister, declared at the first rally. “But we have to take the risk.” (Ironically, at the time, the word at the Elysée palace was that Macron’s movement could help Hollande win in 2017.) A savvily-edited video concluded his talk, outlining a vision in which France’s economy and society, sclerosed by immobilism, had to be reorganised in a more liberal fashion to allow French talents to bloom. Then came the brand design: “En Marche!”, matching Emmanual Macron’s initials, handwritten by the man himself. An impeccably calibrated pitch, directly inspired by the private sector where Macron had worked as a banker before entering Hollande’s cabinet. France’s biggest startup yet had launched.

In the summer that followed, the first “marcheurs” (“walkers”–from marche, “walking”) created hundreds of local En Marche! hubs, where they started canvassing to meet potential voters and set up a process by which they would take a “diagnostic” of the state of the country. Anyone, from any political party, could sign up online for free and set up their own local committee. Today, the party has around 240,000 members and 4,000 local hubs.

On 12 July, En Marche! organised the “Great March”, the first public demonstration of the group’s growing ranks, at the Mutualité square in Paris. Around 4,000 people turned up. The movement—“party” wasn’t a word Macron used then, and is still reluctant to use now, although that is very much what En Marche! has now become—started calling for donations, which remain its main source of funding today.

Macron resigned from Hollande’s cabinet in August. By October, he had personally visited potential big donors in New York and London, and presented the result of his “diagnostic” in a series of talks. In December, he officially became a presidential candidate: the man who was in effect En Marche’s “CEO” was running as a centrist independent. The move led François Hollande to abandon his bid to seek another mandate, freeing the way for Macron to sweep up support from the centre-left.

Just like Hollande in 2012, with his “Change is now” slogan, Macron’s En Marche! blew a wind of hope and brought promises of political renewal to a campaign stained by the financial scandals of François Fillon and Marine Le Pen. To his critics, who claimed he came from the elite, Macron replied that he had learned the value of real work and gained experience outside politics. En Marche! was in full swing, fuelled by an implacable PR machine and its charismatic, youthful leader successfully playing the part of the supposed “outsider.”

Macron’s victory was significant as a symbol of change—but En Marche! was the tool. To fill the vacancies for its 577 parliamentary candidates, the “movement,” now renamed La République En Marche (LREM), called for online applications. They received more than 13,500.

Although they are less socially diverse than the party PR machine would suggest, the LREM MPs elected on Sunday are mostly newcomers to politics, from both the centre-left and centre-right. Theirs is a majority that will not oppose Macron’s reforms—starting with a potentially unpopular liberal reorganisation of labour; a majority that directly rose from his supporters, to whom he has promised change. 

Macron has succeeded, twice, with the stuff of start-up dreams: a mix of innovation, luck, and crazy ideas. If the threat of another start-up outgrowing it isn’t looming in French politics anytime soon, En Marche! now has to start delivering.