The improbable rise of Emmanuel Macron as the youngest president in modern French history – held up as a rebuke to transatlantic populism and generating expectations from Boston to Berlin – started with the big hope of women like Christelle Dernon.
Ms. Dernon was one of thousands of French people who signed up for the political movement “En Marche” that Mr. Macron started just a year ago, knocking on doors across the country and helping create and curate the message of optimism that ultimately prevailed at the polls Sunday night.
At the time the then-economy minister was not a presidential candidate. In fact, his name was barely known, and certainly not outside of France. But Dernon was impressed by her perception that he put projects above politics, and when he started his movement outside the traditional party apparatus – claiming to be neither left nor right – the 25-year-old who didn’t even vote in the previous presidential election joined his army of volunteers.
“He was talking to people, engaging in dialogue, something that we don’t see that often in France,” she says on a recent evening outside his headquarters where she has put in almost as many hours as into her day job as a public affairs consultant. “I subscribed right away. I wanted to be part of it.”
“When we started we just thought that we were building a project, a platform but probably for 2022,” she adds. “So it went way faster than we imagined.”
Indeed, Macron’s victory Sunday night not only surprised his own movement, it caps one of the most extraordinary races in French history. Both mainstream parties were ousted from the race, and the runoff featured two outsider candidates with wildly divergent ideas for France’s future. Marine Le Pen made it to round two with an anti-immigrant, anti-EU message that tapped into pessimism in French society, while Macron forged forward, unapologetically pro-global and pro-European. The French opted for the latter, with 66 percent choosing Macron, compared to 34 percent for Ms. Le Pen, a larger margin than polls predicted.
And now he faces the enormous task of channeling the expectations – and some would say idealism – of Dernon and the movement he founded into a reformist, centrist presidency that pushes back against the populist forces that still lurk.
'Oui, nous pouvons'?
If all of this sounds familiar – perhaps too familiar, from some vantages – to the American election of Barack Obama, it’s not a coincidence.
The first major action of “En Marche” was the door-to-door campaign of which Dernon became part, marching across France in a listening tour. Called the “Grande Marche,” it was unabashedly American in style, and, organized by the electoral technology startup Liegey Muller Pons, it borrowed directly from Mr. Obama’s 2008 presidential bid.
What they found, in conversations across the country that focused on what’s working at the local level and what could be expanded, is that polls didn’t always reflect the full scope of people’s views. “There is a tendency among French people to be pessimistic about their future,” says Vincent Pons, a co-founder of Liegey Muller Pons. “But during these interactions Emmanuel Macron found out that there were many people who had ideas, who had a positive outlook of the country.”
It’s one reason Macron so enthusiastically embraced optimism as a guiding message, despite the general sense that it is pessimism that is winning the era.
But now he faces the gargantuan task of unifying the nation. Despite Macron's decisive victory, Le Pen still won a third of the electorate – a historic win for her National Front – while another third either abstained or cast blank votes, refusing to endorse either candidate. While “En Marche” calls itself a movement of optimism, of the two-thirds of voters who cast ballots for Macron, many did so begrudgingly – because they feared Le Pen’s rise. Despite his outsider claims, many see him as a continuation of President François Hollande, the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic. He faces the immediate challenge of legislative elections – where a man without a party seeks to secure a majority next month.
“He is a candidate who did not play on people’s fears, on people’s resentments, anger. He did not try to look for scapegoats, Islam, immigration, or European institutions,” says Karim Bitar, a senior research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. “But many of the 66 percent of voters who chose him did not necessary adhere to this message of hope that he was carrying. They were basically trying to say no to Marine Le Pen. It is going to be quite difficult to maintain the climate of hope.”
Dialogue, not condemnation
As thousands of supporters cheered and danced in the courtyard of the Louvre Palace, in front of I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid Sunday night, Macron seemed to acknowledge the doubts after his victory was announced. “I know the anger, the anxiety, the doubts that very many of you have also expressed. It's my responsibility to hear them,” he said.
That’s the kind of message that first piqued Dernon’s interest. After the Bataclan terrorist attack in November 2015 that rocked Paris, she says he was the only one who wasn’t fixating on a foreign threat. “He said, ‘This is the second time we are attacked by French people on French people. We need to think about the roots of this to solve the problem.’ I appreciated he had the courage to say this at that time, no one was saying that,” she says.
Later, when his government tried to push forward deeply unpopular labor reform, she was drawn to his style that seemed not to bash people or parties but to debate projects.
She still thinks economic reform will be his biggest bugaboo. Many already dismiss him as a candidate of corporatism and could resist his reform agenda. But Dernon says that his gift for dialogue will make the difference. “When you do political reform in France no one explains it. It’s just, ‘We are going to do this.’ Then everyone goes on strike. Then nothing happens. It has been the same thing since I was born,” she says.
“People don’t understand that the social rights come from a different time. There are jobs that are disappearing and we have to adapt our system,” she says. “This is not saying we are going to do everything like the US, it’s not working in the US either. We have to build our own system protecting people but also bringing more mobility and possibility for people to move into jobs.”
Mr. Pons, also an associate professor at Harvard Business School, says the timing might be right for him to effect change. The same breakdown in ideological divides that ushered him into power could also boost his leadership, since so much resistance to reform came from the rejection of the political class in the first place.
“The strength of Macron is that he is a new face. He is really young, relatively charismatic, his movement is entirely new," Pons says. "So he benefits from a lot of credit. He benefits from much more trust by French voters than moderate parties do. This trust maybe could be very instrumental in helping him implement reforms.”
Waiting for change
For a man whose party is just over one year old, these are outsize expectations – another parallel, this one ominous, with Obama, who won the Nobel Peace prize early in his term with the world looking on, setting expectations that left many deeply disappointed.
But not Dernon. She says her political activism was directly inspired by the former American president, and when she heard his "yes we can" spirit in Macron's movement – including Obama volunteers working directly in their campaign – she joined without hesitating. On a trip to Washington in January, she says she bumped into Obama’s daughter Malia in a park – something she considers more than a coincidence.
Cognizant of what followed Obama's two terms in office – the arrival of Mr. Trump – she has hope that Macron is the man to effect change without populism winning in the future. She says she’s not an idealist, something she couldn’t be after knocking on thousands of doors. “Sometimes you have a conversation with someone who doesn’t understand anything, or who is just aggressive,” she says. “In the end you are just like, ‘What is the point of doing all this?’ It can feel quite frustrating and disappointing.”
And yet amid hundreds of slammed doors were hundreds more that opened. Her lasting impression: “People are waiting for this kind of change."