This article is part of the Reshaping European Democracy project, an initiative of Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program and Carnegie Europe.
In recent years, Europe has seen the rise of ideologically diverse political forces that brand themselves as movements more than as parties. In Italy, the Five Star Movement finished first in the March 2018 parliamentary elections. Podemos has established itself as one of Spain’s main political actors. Sebastian Kurz won Austria’s October 2017 elections and became chancellor. Even the UK’s Labor Party now stresses its movement-like qualities. Most successful has been French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, which swept to power only a year after its launch. But Macron’s creation, since renamed La République En Marche (LREM), is a new type of party-movement hybrid; it was founded without the institutional support of a previous party or protest movement, or the appeal of a well-known public figure.
LREM does not fit the trend of traditional political parties rebranding themselves as movements or being reshaped as broader political movements. Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the Labor Party and Kurz’s co-optation of the Austrian People’s Party are notable examples. In these cases, change began before the new leaders took over and started taking advantage of their respective parties’ long-standing structures and solid funding arrangements to rebrand them as movements and radically alter their political agendas.
Yet neither is LREM the product of bottom-up activism emerging organically out of protest movements. While sometimes likened to Podemos and the Five Star Movement due to its movement qualities, anti-establishment rhetoric, and “neither left nor right” positioning, LREM has different characteristics. Both Podemos and the Five Star Movement grew out of grassroots anti-establishment mobilization, but then government minister Emmanuel Macron launched LREM in 2016 specifically to help him run for France’s presidency.
Domestically, Macron’s LREM has some similarities to Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise (LFI), with its mobilization tactics and its informal organizational structure led by a strong leader. The key difference is that at the time of LFI’s launch, also in 2016, Mélenchon was already a well-known public figure—a veteran of French politics since the mid-1980s who could draw on the institutional support of various far-left political parties, including the Left Party that he had previously founded. By contrast, Macron was the first candidate in a French presidential election to be genuinely competitive without a party and without a long-established public profile. It is easy to forget that when he announced his candidacy, very few people other than political wonks knew who he was.
Given its distinctiveness, it is important to ask what LREM’s rise means for democracy in Europe. Is the combination of Macron’s strong leadership and grassroots consultation sustainable? Could this model work in other countries, or is it a product of particular French characteristics?
Forging a New Path
Rather than launching his party in a top-down fashion by laying out a set of predetermined policy propositions, Macron decided that LREM should start with a large-scale conversation with citizens. This exercise, labeled the Grande Marche, involved over 5,000 volunteers conducting in-depth interviews of around forty-five minutes with 25,000 people across the country about how they saw France; what problems they, their families, and their communities faced; and what kind of future they would like to see. All this information was subsequently filtered back to circles of policy experts within the movement.
No other leader in Europe has carried out a similar public exercise before founding a party or movement. Nearly all parties conduct opinion polling or hold focus groups to get a sense of what policy positions are popular with the public, but this is usually done on a smaller scale and behind closed doors. The LREM process of carrying out interviews and publishing the resulting analysis in a 176-page diagnosis of France’s problems was unprecedented. The language Macron used while campaigning and the issues on which he chose to focus truly resonated with many voters; these efforts were backed by a thorough understanding of why people were happy or unhappy and of what change they wanted to see. Arguably Macron was also successful because people felt they were given a genuine voice in the new political project.
From the start, LREM was open to anyone interested, regardless of party affiliation. It represents a shift from a membership model to a follower model—a change some other movements and parties in Europe are also introducing. Official adherents of LREM submit their contact information and agree to adhere to its charter, but they do not have to make monetary donations, unlike the members of most parties. According to the latest figures (from October 2017), almost 400,000 people are now official adherents, a number far higher than the membership of any other French party. As well as being a low-cost way of garnering data about its supporters and potential target voters, LREM’s open online follower model also enabled the movement to harvest small-scale donations to fund Macron’s presidential campaign. Besides taking out a loan of around 8 million euros (about $9.8 million), his campaign raised 6.5 million euros (about $8.0 million) through such donations, which averaged 250 euros (approximately $300). While Macron did not invent this approach—the U.S. Democratic Party raised a great deal of money through small donations during former president Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, for instance—he used it successfully on a scale never before seen in Europe.
Independence from the bureaucracy and internal politics of established party structures and from the strings attached to traditional funding streams meant that LREM could make quicker, more fluid campaign decisions. As Bruno Bonnell, LREM’s coordinator in the city of Lyon, said in a media interview, “We’re much more guerrilla style. We’re fluid, we’re about fast action and a swift decision-making process. We’re surprisingly organised for what is essentially a huge . . . [upswell] of emotion.” Rather than having his campaign run by local party offices, Macron’s presidential battle was fought by thousands of unpaid volunteers like Bonnell, who operated largely from their homes, cars, apartments, and communal spaces, such as bars, restaurants, and community centers.
Macron’s approach meant that his central claim of wanting to renew the political class could be taken seriously. Part of the appeal of LREM in the presidential and subsequent parliamentary elections was that its anti-establishment rhetoric was supported by action. Half of its candidates were female and half of them came from civil society rather than the political world. Three-quarters of the National Assembly now consists of members who had never before been elected, resulting in a younger, more diverse makeup than ever before. Critics, however, belittle this development as an elitist renewal, as most of those newly elected under the LREM banner are highly educated, with a greater proportion coming from business and managerial backgrounds.
Replicating and Sustaining the Movement
The unexpected and unprecedented success of Macron and LREM has led to questions about whether this approach might be replicated in other European countries and how sustainable this model is in France. Are there lessons for political entrepreneurs about how to found a new party-movement? Can initial public enthusiasm be maintained until France’s next election cycle in 2022 and beyond?
It is hard to imagine where in Europe the approach Macron adopted could work quite as well as it did in France. The country’s semi-presidential system, with its unique two-round voting arrangement, means that the personality and profile of presidential candidates are incredibly important. As France essentially elects a powerful executive, it is possible to build a movement around one leader in a way that would be more difficult in other European countries. The same dynamic plays an outsized role in determining the result of the parliamentary elections, which normally take place a few weeks after the presidential vote. However, that is not to say that a similar electoral feat could not happen elsewhere. At least part of the LREM experience might resonate elsewhere.
What is certainly replicable in other countries is the genuine listening exercise that Macron and his supporters organized. Given that many voters today are less likely to think along traditional party lines than in the past, LREM was able to formulate a fresh, interesting electoral agenda and policy platform with some elements from both the left and the right, and this permitted Macron to tread on the traditional ground of other parties. There is nothing uniquely French about conducting in-depth consultations that result in original, convincing policy platforms with popular appeal—such an approach should be readily transferable.
Furthermore, LREM did not just take a few ideas from other parties, but rather transcended party divisions to create a new voter coalition in a previously unoccupied political space—one for voters who are pro-European, economically liberal, committed to social protection, and strongly opposed to the populist, far-right National Front. This was appealing because French voters are increasingly tired of stale party divisions. As voters in other European countries express the same sentiments, this kind of coalition that goes beyond distinctions between the left and the right might gain traction beyond France.
With regard to sustainability, current polling for the 2019 European Parliament election shows LREM well ahead of the other parties. This suggests the movement may well maintain its momentum in the short term, while the French give Macron a chance to reform the country as promised, despite there being no precedent in France or elsewhere on which to base this judgment. Austria’s Sebastian Kurz has been in power for an even shorter time than Macron, while Italy’s Five Star Movement is only starting to contemplate how to form a national government. Winning on a platform that emphasizes doing politics differently is possible when one is new to the scene, but maintaining such an approach tends to be hard once one has won power. Things could just as easily peter out for Macron and his party-movement in the longer term.
Since France’s presidential and parliamentary elections, LREM has retained its adherents’ membership model but is developing a more traditional party structure in terms of its bureaucracy and local offices. This is a natural development, as local supporters come together in more organized ways now that LREM receives significant funds from the state due to its parliamentary representation.
The impact of this change on LREM’s future electoral prospects is uncertain. It may lead to a similar problem faced by other parties: if individuals with political ambitions join local groups to work their way up in the party and to get chosen to stand for elections, then the more open selection process that ensured LREM had a good gender balance and diversity of candidates in 2017 might not be welcomed in the future by those who feel they should have a greater chance of selection based on their commitment of time and effort to the party. There was a small wave of resignations over the unopposed election of Christophe Castaner as the new head of LREM last November; adherents wanted more of a say. This was a sign of LREM becoming a less open, bottom-up movement.
At the same time, however, LREM remains a fluid, volunteer-driven movement that has kept some aspects of its campaign mode. Local groups can be created and can run themselves easily. Volunteers will form a large segment of the human capital behind another Grande Marche—a follow-up mass LREM-facilitated consultation starting in April 2018 to develop a manifesto for the 2019 European Parliament elections; the party is seeking to recreate the success of its presidential campaign. The circles of experts that crowdsourced ideas for the LREM manifesto seem to be active still, with a longer-term view toward competing in future elections and maintaining an ongoing conversation with the wider public. Whether these groups have any tangible impact on policy remains to be seen, however.
These challenges of sustainability will be highly relevant to other movements and politicians across Europe who are looking closely at LREM. These issues suggest that high-level political success needs to be complemented by constant efforts to replenish a movement’s grassroots support and participatory processes.
Reconciling Strong Leadership With Movement-Style Politics
The tension between Macron’s style of governing from above (like the Roman god Jupiter) and his party’s emphasis on grassroots consultation has received increasing attention. Can the two be reconciled? Is the consultative method a way for Macron to achieve bottom-up legitimacy for his government’s actions as well as to develop a campaign program? Or will citizens, galvanized by the opportunity to participate, be disappointed by the time France’s 2022 elections occur?
There seems to be a calculated sequence of events in the evolution of LREM. After the bottom-up consultation and campaign, which relied on public participation and the energy of the movement, Macron has switched to a more traditionally French, top-down style since gaining power. Surely, this is partly because France has one of the most centralized, top-down systems of government and one of the most powerful presidencies around. This reality sets up a tension between traditional French political culture and the movement’s bottom-up mentality. However, such a governing style is arguably required to achieve strong progress in several areas, notably re-energizing the economy. But this might not necessarily remain the case throughout Marcon’s term; in a second phase of his presidency, there may be more innovation in governance that would allow LREM to prepare for the next elections.
The tension between campaigning and governing styles ultimately reflects the conflicting desires of the electorate, which simultaneously wants fast policy results and deep changes in governing style. It seems that Macron’s approach aims to balance these goals, as he moves between consulting, campaigning, implementing, and renewal.
So far, it appears to be working. Early evidence suggests that Macron may be reshaping French political orientations, particularly the balance between the center and center-left. In one November 2017 poll, more respondents described themselves as centrists (38 percent) than in March 2017 (34 percent). However, the biggest shift is among those who describe themselves as left-wing (15 percent, down from 23 percent), while those who identify with the right remained stable (36 percent). In another poll from last November, 49 percent of respondents said that Macron was overcoming political cleavages, and 53 percent said that he is doing politics differently. Notably, two-thirds of those who voted for him in the second round of the presidential election agreed that he has been overcoming existing divisions and approaching politics differently, and this seems to indicate that most of his voters think he is keeping his promises so far.
The key question is whether this level of political realignment and voter satisfaction can last if the two main parties of the center-left and center-right adapt in the aftermath of their 2017 defeats. The biggest threat to LREM is on the right, where the new leader of the Republicans, Laurent Wauquiez, is strategically attempting to weaken the National Front by presenting a more acceptable face for rightist policies. If this works, Macron will face a stronger opposition from the conservatives. On the center-left, the Socialist Party is dealing with an existential crisis and looks unlikely to pose a serious challenge, at least in the near future. At the moment, Mélenchon and his LFI occupy the far-left opposition space using a movement approach similar to Macron’s.
In sum, the sustainability of Macron’s centrist political realignment will depend on whether he and his LREM can keep moving its contrasting styles. His declared drive to restructure the French ideological landscape is still in its preliminary stages, though at some point this will end. By the time of the next elections, opponents will be targeting Macron more explicitly. The challenge of definitively containing the National Front extends well beyond the LREM’s particular features, and expectations will need to be kept realistic. LREM will be less of a movement in all senses of the word, even if it keeps calling itself one. It will inevitably become more of a structured party with a more rigid organization. The 2022 elections will be the true test of Macron’s approach. Other aspiring party-movements across Europe will need to carefully assess both the positive and negative lessons from the LREM experience in the intervening years.
Claudia Chwalisz is a Paris-based expert on populism, democracy, and civic engagement. She is the author of The People’s Verdict: Adding Informed Citizen Voices to Public Decision-Making (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) and The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).
The Reshaping European Democracy Project receives the support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Warwick.