Disrupting Politics: How an Upstart Upended the French Election

Emmanuel Macron

Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! party is a political startup that used digital tools to take down France’s dominant duopoly, writes Richard Robert in this opinion piece. Robert is executive director of Paris Innovation Review.

The French presidential election has attracted a lot of attention both in Europe and around the world. For good reasons, considering how high the stakes were at a global level. These involved halting — or not — the populist wave in the Western world, re-launching or letting die the European project, as well as France’s membership in NATO and its relationship with Putin’s Russia.

It was also a very French story, a political play including well-known characters, relatively few actresses and a few newcomers a play that journalists and political scientists have deciphered using categories such as left, right or center and referring to local history. It wasn’t a bad show, indeed, since the suspense was intense, the scenario full of surprises, and anxious spectators were rewarded with an ending that most of them considered to be happy.

But to use just common political knowledge is to miss the most interesting part of this story. Something unique did happen, actually. Something new, that requires deeper understanding because it may have major, unexpected consequences. In a nutshell, what happened in France — and could happen elsewhere — was a disruption, such as the business world has witnessed with the emergence of companies like Amazon, Uber or Airbnb. The difference is, in this instance the disruption did not impact just any market, but politics.

Emmanuel Macron’s movement, En Marche!, (translated in English as “Onward!” or “On the Move!”) was sometimes compared to a political startup. Created less than two years ago by a young political entrepreneur with a small, efficient team, it was able to take over and even to take down large, well-established organizations, the Republicans and the Socialist Party, the very duopoly actually that had alternately held the presidency since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The duopoly hardly realized it was being seriously challenged before it was already too late.

“Macron brought to the political system the agile development approaches used by the software industry: launching a product … without waiting for it to be perfect….”

This unexpected disruption was certainly the result of a deep understanding of digital tools. But Macron’s team was not the most active online. Both extreme right and extreme left parties (Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise) were arguably more efficient, using all the tricks of the contemporary warfare of digital activism, including fake news propagated by armies of trolls. But it is one thing to use digital tools, and quite another to think digitally. This is where Macron scored over his rivals.

Thinking Digitally

First, Macron’s whole movement was designed as a platform — a scalable one, creating a well-crafted, personalized relationship with up to 300,000 subscribers –- as compared to the less than 100,000 members of the Socialist Party. Not all of them were dedicated activists, nor were they just an audience curious about Macron. Most subscribers were in between, and the platform creators did not take for granted that they were ready to fight for the leader.

Instead, they managed to stimulate, organize, and ultimately mobilize this crowd – from crowdsourcing large parts of the presidential program to matching voters who could not attend the election with others who could cast their ballot.

Macron’s team thus was able to create, if not genuine participation, at least a feeling of participation, with palpable enthusiasm. Subscribing was free, as opposed to membership in traditional parties. But people were encouraged to give – time, money and ideas. This kind of “freemium” model proved flexible enough to welcome both passive observers and dedicated activists. Increasing one’s degree of participation was easy and helped transform an audience (or a crowd) into a movement.

Second, Macron brought to the political system the agile development approaches used by the software industry: launching a product (here, a political program, as well as the very person who embodies it) without waiting for it to be perfect, then reviewing, validating, updating, reviewing again and so on. This method, once mocked by opponents and observers who wondered about the very existence of a program, proved able to deliver a decent product on time. Agility also allowed crowdsourcing, which in return contributed to validate a key feature of the program: a radically different, collaborative way of doing politics.

“By refusing the traditional distinction between left and right, Macron broke the imaginary boundaries that defined both political monopolies…”

Third, by refusing the traditional distinction between left and right, Macron broke the imaginary boundaries that defined both political monopolies and their extremist sidekicks, inviting citizens to free themselves from a political offer that did not fit their needs. This is a typical move when tech firms disrupt a market: They don’t directly compete with established companies; they rather set up a completely different offer, one that might eventually destroy the old market. Consider, for example, Uber with mobility services or Airbnb with hosting services. Before you know it, your market is shrinking and another market is booming – one over which you have no grip.

This is also where Macron was able to differentiate himself from his extremist competitors. Even with triangulation efforts (importing ideas from other parts of the political spectrum), they were still anchored in one part of the field. The only room they could think of that was not occupied by established parties was somehow outside the market. Leaving the Eurozone, withdrawing from international treaties including the WTO and NATO, may seem attractive to a large fraction of voters, but most of them know these are not serious options.

This is one of the reasons why Marine Le Pen was defeated so neatly in the run-off: People might express a desire to destroy everything, but when it comes to making a decisive choice they return to reality. Marine Le Pen’s political offer was outside the market of government options. This is not a disruption, just a losing strategy. In contrast, Macron combined central, conservative options, usually monopolized by “government parties,” with more radical ideas that threaten the political system itself.

Macron’s disruption is hardly unique: Ciudadanos (Citizens party) in Spain and Cinque Stelle (Five Star party) in Italy have also developed interesting ways of disrupting the political system. But Macron won, and this single fact should be taken very seriously, be it only since a movement like Cinque Stelle is much more threatening for democracy.

Just like any successful digital platform, Macron’s promise was mainstream and nice: Don’t be evil. Just like any tech entrepreneur, Macron’s ambition is to change the world – at least the small, dusty world of French politics. But other Macrons will emerge in other countries. Just like software, digital-designed politics might have started eating the world. Hacking the elections is not the only way to do it.

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