Nearly one year ago, Emmanuel Macron became the president of France. Since then, members of his En Marche movement have begun reimagining the world of French politics while governing the country at the same time. Can it work?
When Christophe Castaner, 52, talks about his relationship with Emmanuel Macron, the man who created the movement Castaner now heads, he says there is an “element of being in love.”
When visiting Sacha Houlié, the 29-year-old deputy president of French parliament, in his office, it takes him less than two minutes to pull Macron’s autobiography off the shelf and proudly read the dedication aloud: “For Sacha, who started this revolution at my side — even before the first day.”
And 32-year-old Amélie de Montchalin, the spokeswoman of the Finance Committee in the National Assembly who has wanted to become a politician since she was 10, says that since she has been in parliament for Macron, she feels “absolutely in the right place.”
Emmanuel Macron has been the president of France for almost a year now. And while he spends his time traveling the globe and receiving world leaders at Élysée Palace, his movement, La République En Marche (LREM), is still in the process of becoming a governing party. Ultimately, the hope is that it will become a big-tent party, one that represents as many French voters as possible.
Macron’s election has shifted the political coordinates in France. Where other parties, mainly the Socialists and the center-right, once vied for voters, there is now a gaping void — one that La République En Marche hopes to fill. But can it succeed? Is it possible to change everything while at the same time keeping intact democratic representation, that essential function of a party system?
The pressure to succeed, in any case, is immense, and the tension is almost palpable. Failure, after all, would be disastrous. The traditional political landscape, the balance between the opposition and the government, has lain in ruins since Macron’s triumph. And rebuilding that landscape, for the moment, at least, is up to him and his movement. Another disappointment after five leaden years with François Hollande as president would likely be met with a harsh response by the French, and a further turn away from political life.
LREM has been a strange construct from the beginning. On the one hand, it wants to be a citizens’ movement with thousands of local associations all over the country. But at the same time, its structure is focused on one single person: Emmanuel Macron. He conceived it; he created it — along with a handful of close advisers.
According to its statutes, the movement aims to place the will of the French people back at the heart of political life. The people, the sovereign – an ancient concept.
This Saturday marks the start of its next major project, Operation Grande Marche pour l’Europe, the Grand March for Europe. For five weeks, the marchers will wander through France, door to door, asking the French questions about Europe. “What does the word Europe mean to you?” “How does Europe enrich your everyday life?” “What do you think is going wrong in the European Union?”
The project is a survey, a kind of national audit, the same strategy the party followed to put together its initial platform. This time, however, the survey is about next year’s European elections, a maturity test for Macron and his young movement.
What sort of party — or movement, as it prefers to call itself — is En Marche? Who are its representatives in parliament and who drafts its laws? Who are these people, who describe their mandate as an adventure and who want to change their country? DER SPIEGEL accompanied three Macronists for several weeks. For two of them, it was their first steps as professional politicians, their first months in a public office.
For the moment, the party can still be steered by those who want to shape its destiny. There are no competing wings and very little party infighting, except for the occasional, barely audible grumbling over the fact that most decisions are made by an inner circle with access to the Élysée.
How It All Began
The sky is pale blue and the air balmy on a morning in June 2017 in Poitiers as Sacha Houlié, 28, boards the TGV to Paris from the western French city to attend his first day in parliament. A handful of journalists are waiting on the platform for the gawky young man with a Harry Potter look, and TV station TF1 has sent a camera crew. Later, in an inner courtyard of the National Assembly in Paris, the number of reporters will suddenly multiply and it will look as if Houlié, a deputy from the 2nd election district in the Vienne region, is being pursued by a flash mob.
This Wednesday is a special day for Houlié. Striker Valère Germain has just been signed by his favorite football club, Olympique Marseille, and the Palais Bourbon on the left bank of the Seine, seat of the French National Assembly, is welcoming its newly elected representatives. There are 188 newcomers taking their seats on this day, and Sacha Houlié, a lawyer from Poitiers, is one of the youngest.
Of 577 deputies, there are now 309 belonging to Macron’s party, making for a National Assembly that is better educated, younger and more gender-balanced than ever before.
If there were such a thing as an archetype of the En Marche deputy, Sacha Houlié would come pretty close to it. Together with three friends, he founded “Jeunes avec Macron” (Young People for Macron) in June 2015. The group, which now has thousands of members throughout France, contributed greatly to Macron’s election victory. Houlié, who was still working as a lawyer in Paris at the time, was impressed by Macron’s urge to bring about change.
Today, at 29, Houlié is vice-president of the National Assembly. When he chairs a plenary session, it seems almost as though a student intern was deciding how long speakers were allowed to hold the floor. His assistant Flavie still has to spell her boss’ name at parliament reception when picking up visitors.
“Houlié,” she says.
“Lawmaker?” comes the response.
Sacha Houlié is sitting in an artificial leather chair in the Brasserie Bourbon, a kind of living room for the deputies, as he talks about the beginnings of the movement. He has ordered a hot chocolate and his eyes are shining behind his Harry Potter glasses. He still seems fascinated by the craziness of what has happened, the victory of Macron and the Marcheurs. En Marche now has 400,000 members, more than the two established parties combined. Opponents still call the movement a virtual bubble — partly because it costs nothing to become a member.
The bubble, however, is currently in the process of dramatically changing reality. It has restructured the labor market and voted to abandon fossil fuels; it will renew the dual education system and introduce compulsory schooling for three-year-olds. It has increased the social tax and abolished the wealth tax.
Railway reform is currently in the pipeline, and with it the abolition of centuries-old privileges for railway workers, who have threatened to go on strike for months. But unlike his predecessors, Macron doesn’t look as if he plans to buckle.
Not a Party, a Movement
Suddenly, as if by sleight of hand, Christophe Castaner is holding a golden pyramid the size of an espresso cup in his hand. He places it on the table in front of him and makes a short dramatic pause: “This is precisely what I want,” he says he turns the pyramid over, so that the top now points downwards.
Party leader Castaner’s office is on Paris’ Rue Sainte-Anne and occupies four perfectly renovated floors surrounded by galleries and Asian restaurants. The pyramid is intended to illustrate the challenge he is facing. Castaner wants to raise up the base of the party and consolidate it. Pardon, not the party, the movement. LREM, he explains, is not a conventional party and is not just focused on winning elections. It is focused on movement. Its goal is to ensure that things move forward.
Castaner puts on a practiced smile. He often sounds like a motivational coach. Perhaps he has to given how much has changed since Emmanuel Macron became president. The political sphere now resembles a desert where only En Marche has access to the oasis. The center-right is deeply divided; the Socialists, after five years under Hollande, have shrunk dramatically; and even the radicals, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen, have become strangely quiet.
But it remains unclear exactly how En Marche’s current position is to be secured. The movement wants to embody renewal, yet it still must run the government. Thus far, LREM has been a strictly hierarchical entity with a top-down structure. It was never a grassroots movement, but rather a kind of digitally savvy boy scout troop led by a scout leader.
Castaner was once a Socialist backbencher, an apparatchik, as he puts it, and he reflects his new party’s contradictions. The president chose him to lead the party and today he is one of his closest confidants. It’s not an easy task, because there is currently only one element uniting the 400,000 or so members and 309 lawmakers: Macron.
Macron, though, has moved into the Élysée — bringing virtually all of the talented, hardworking strategists who helped him win along with him, either as ministers or in other key positions. Left behind was a movement that resembles a start-up that has grown too quickly.
Sometimes the necessary professionalization of the party feels like a race against time in which any tool is acceptable, as long as it is gaudy enough. Members, for example, are sent explanatory films. In “What Is a Town Hall?” animated characters simulate the role of the mayor.
Members receive training in online seminars, an hour a week for five weeks. The town hall film is part of the training, as is a quiz on the responsibilities of local authorities. One of the questions is: “Who’s in charge of an elementary school?” There are three multiple-choice answers. Politics as Trivial Pursuit?
Sometimes one wonders whether the old political world was really worse or simply less colorful. Less superficial, perhaps?
Before Christophe Castaner became a star in the Macron firmament, he spent three decades as a member of the Socialist party and was mayor of a small southern French town. Macron entrusted him with the task of leading the party at a joint dinner in the Élysée. There was quiet grumbling over the way he received his appointment, with no opposing candidates and no debate, but hardly any of the critics were willing to be quoted by name.
Castaner enjoys the hype that surrounds his person, but he knows it can end quickly. While politics can often be torpid, it can also move extremely fast at times. Castaner is a strange man. His friendliness is so routine that it almost seems distant. In his lilting southern-French dialect, he talks about what “Macronism” means to him: individual freedom combined with personal responsibility and a sense of collective spirit.
The Harvard Graduate
When Amélie de Montchalin is asked about the spirit of her party, she cites a fragment of a John F. Kennedy quote: “Ask what you can do for your country.”
That is its credo, says de Montchalin, a deputy from the Essence region south of Paris, home of technical universities attended by the elite. She can’t imagine being a member of parliament from anywhere else. “This is the most competitive France, as it should be,” she says enthusiastically in her office in the Assemblée. The room looks like a Danish furniture catalogue, complete with a wool carpet, light-colored wooden cabinets and a couch with pastel-colored cushions.
It is late November and the budget is currently being worked out, the first under Macron. As a representative from the largest parliamentary group, de Montchalin’s role is an important one. She is a member of the Finance Committee, perhaps the most important parliamentary committee, and she has earned an excellent reputation in her few months as a member of parliament, even receiving praise from members of other parties.
There were 4,900 motions for amendment when the budget was adopted, and every one of them was discussed in committee. “We have followed the rules,” de Montchalin says proudly, adding that they proved that you don’t have to be a politician with decades of parliamentary experience to pass a budget. Her personal conclusion: “The procedure in parliament is designed more to prevent reforms than to promote them.” She is convinced that everything should be done differently.
They have already embarked on their mission. In order to adopt the budget, de Montchalin and other lawmakers met and negotiated with ministers and advisers. They went to the Élysée, met with the prime minister and spoke with economists at the Ministry of Finance. It was a novel approach.
Beyond the Macronists’ constant urge to communicate, the Facebook live appearances and the selfies that constantly clutter Twitter feeds, there are intelligent and efficient people like Amélie de Montchalin. It is to Emmanuel Macron’s credit that he has won such supporters.
Like Macron, de Montchalin went to a Jesuit school. The eldest of six children in a devoutly Catholic family, she speaks quickly, acknowledging her interlocutor’s comments with attentive nods. She glances at her mobile phone and apologizes. The cabinet is about to be reshuffled, she explains, and she is being considered for a ministerial position. Is it all going a little too fast for her? “No,” she says. On the contrary.
She says that she had been looking for a way to get into politics for a long time, finally finding her entry point with Macron. “He is interested in the method: How do you have to do something to achieve a result?” She thinks the French chose him because they finally wanted results, not just measures that are proclaimed again and again and yet are never implemented.
It is the desire for results that unites her party, she says. And that is true — for the time being at least. The prime minister is doing what his president says, and so is the parliamentary group. LREM is still a collective in which executive and legislative branches are in rare harmony.
Citizen Office Hours in Poitiers
Sacha Houlié is wearing a quilted vest under his jacket as he unlocks his office in a newly renovated storefront in Poitiers. It’s time to meet with constituents. It’s early and chilly, but like Macron, Houlié always seems like he got a good night’s sleep. He lives in Poitiers from Friday to Monday and in Paris from Tuesday to Thursday. He has fresh white shirts brought to both offices. What is LREM’s priority now, roughly six months after the start of its mandate? “The movement must also be anchored in the provinces, that is, beyond Paris. We don’t want to be a professional party, but we need a method nonetheless.”
The bell rings and a man and a woman walk in. According to Houlié’s planner, the discussion is supposed to be about palliative medicine and euthanasia, but the conversation quickly turns to surrogacy, which the couple claims God could not have wanted, and artificial insemination. Houlié nods amiably at first. But his face hardens when the couple begins complaining about homosexual couples who are allowed to raise children. “I know some children of homosexuals, and they don’t have any more problems than in other families,” Houlié says coldly. When the two are gone, his 18-year-old assistant says with a sigh: “What mega-fascists!”
On this morning, Sacha Houlié also receives an envoy from an association promoting copyright law, whose director would like to have dinner with him: “With pleasure; perhaps in the second trimester of 2018,” Houlié replies amiably.
A few weeks later, in mid-January, Houlié voluntarily resigns from his post as vice-president and turns it over to a member of a micro-party, a compromise to maintain a balance of power between LREM and the opposition.
It’s About Transformation
In late January, party leader Christophe Castaner presents his new management team under the spotlights and whitewashed beams of a space normally used for fashion shows in Paris’s 11th arrondissement. He forces his way through the narrow corridor to the stage, thanking the audience for its “great uninterrupted attention.” On stage, Castaner talks solemnly about what his movement stands for. It is about a Europe that “protects us,” and about its citizens, who “get involved.” It’s about France’s “transformation” — the Macronists frown upon the word reform, perhaps because it sounds too much like decades of defeat.
Castaner recites his sentences without emphasis, but each one sounds like a well-thought-out slogan. His catchiest phrases appear in blinking letters on a flat screen next to him on the stage:
“The desire to believe together.”
“It is the joint effort that makes the difference.”
“You are all useful.”
Particularly striking buzzwords appear alone on the screen, like “humility,” for example.
This is yet another moment in which LREM seems less like a party than an advertising agency making an important pitch.
Why not? asks Amélie de Montchalin. She believes that the country should basically be managed more like a large company, one in which efficiency is constantly under scrutiny. “As a member of parliament, I am not here to make laws for eternity,” she says, adding that every law has its half-life. What’s good today could be passé tomorrow.
She attended the best schools, including Harvard, where she researched the origins of the financial crisis and became a mother for the second time, of twins. It was there that she walked past the JFK quote, written on the doors of the Kennedy School of Government, every day. She has had a French translation painted on a wall of her constituency office. Her job as a lawmaker, she says, demands just as much energy from her as completing her Harvard degree while giving birth to twins.
De Montchalin visits her election district every two weeks, on Saturdays. This is all she can manage given her workload and three children. She smiles: “Everyone can follow what I do online.”
Once a month, she holds a meeting on a issue that the government is currently working on, then meets with representatives of institutions and associations to discuss what is important for whom and what needs more attention.
This Saturday she will launch the Grande Marche pour l’Europe in a café in her constituency, knock on doors with other marchers and ask the French for their opinion. It’s grassroots work, she says.
This is a part of her responsibilities. Only this time, it is in service of Europe, Macron’s next big project.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan