Checking in on Emmanuel Macron’s political revolution

Emmanuel Macron defied all odds when he created his political movement En Marche (On the Move) in 2016 – a movement that propelled him to the presidency in May 2017 and won him a majority in the parliament in June shortly after.

En Marche, renamed and reworked into the functioning political party La République en Marche (LRM) after its electoral success, promised to revolutionise politics in France by governing from the ‘bottom-up.’ No more of the mindless deadlock between the establishment parties, who Macron considered to be stuck in the past and disconnected from the people they were meant to serve. LRM’s members would be ordinary citizens rather than political elites. The party would rely on regular consultations with local citizen advisory boards to make policy. It would be fundamentally democratic and inclusive.

Evidently, there was an appetite for this political shake-up in France. The people elected Macron with 66% of the vote and gave 308 of the parliament’s 577 seats to LRM – a remarkable achievement for a party that did not even exist a year earlier.  

But now that the post-election dust has settled, how has Macron’s party measured up? Has LRM brought us the political revolution it promised?

A closer look

In many ways, LRM has in fact upturned political tables. Aside from ditching the traditional left-right labels, the party has taken real steps to restructure the political party process in France. For one thing, unlike with the country’s traditional parties, anyone can join LRM, for free. Any party member can participate in (or even organise) one of the local councils, which are held regularly in cities all across France. And as promised, any member can propose ideas, which, if they gain enough support within the local councils, can make their way to Macron’s desk in Paris.

At the national level, almost half of LRM’s parliamentarians are people who have never held political office before – they are former teachers, civil service members, businesspeople, farmers. These are remarkable reforms to a political party system that has long been entrenched in elite interests.  

Still, you can sense an undercurrent of scepticism about Macron and his party when the topic comes up in café conversations. Among my friends and I at least, there’s no denying the initial enthusiasm around En Marche has faded, replaced with a sense that the ‘movement’ may have been little more than an electoral stunt.

For one thing, it’s not clear that LRM has turned out to be much different from its predecessors. One of my friends even pointed out that the way it structures its internal affairs – by appointing rather than electing 80% of its national council, and choosing the other 20% at random from the party base – makes it even less democratic than its establishment rivals.  

Many of us also raised our eyebrows at the election of Christophe Castaner as the head of the party last November – an election in which Castaner, hand-picked by Macron, faced no competitors and won all but two votes. It was Castaner’s ‘election’ that led 100 party members to sign an open letter declaring they were quitting the party, which they considered had abandoned its founding promise to return politics to the people.

There is also a growing sense that Macron has proven to be le président des villes (the president for cities), or worse, le président des riches – a particularly stinging criticism for someone whose campaign was built on the idea of tearing down politics ruled by the Paris elite.

But LRM’s real problem may lie deeper still: namely, with the “marcheurs” themselves (the nickname given to LRM members), many of whom it seems have lost interest in the movement.

Who’s still En Marche ?

I was talking with my friend Ben about LRM the other day. Midway through a point he was making about the party’s leadership, he interrupted himself to ask: “Who even are les marcheurs at this point? Wait, I’m probably still considered a marcheur, aren’t I?” He laughed. “I haven’t done anything with LRM since I created that local council with those people in Saint-Germain-en-Laye (a suburb of Paris) during the election. We never ended up meeting, actually.”

I checked – it turns out Ben is still counted as a marcheur, according to LRM at least. The party considers itself to have 380,000 members – an impressive number for any political party in France, let alone one that hasn’t even celebrated its cotton anniversary yet (the centre-right party, which has been around for decades, only counts 234,000 members, while the Parti socialiste can only claim 102,000). These big numbers are one major advantage of LRM’s decision to make joining the party so easy (and free) – all it takes is a filling out a few details online, et voilà! You’re En marche!

But, like my friend Ben, most of these marcheurs have not been involved with the party since the election last May. Spokespeople for LRM themselves have admitted that only about 100,000 of its members can be considered ‘active.’ Less than 20% of the members even bothered to vote to approve the party’s statutes online last July.

So why the sudden drop in enthusiasm?

At this point, LRM basically seems like a dormant engine waiting to be started up again for the 2022 elections, when Macron needs it to win his re-election.

For my friends and I, as the threat of the far-right has faded to the background, so too has the sense of political urgency that motivated many of us only a year ago.

But our reluctance may also have to do with fact that it is not clear what LRM stands for outside of Macron himself – Which makes being a part of LRM feel a little bit shallow, like being a ‘fan’ rather than a genuine political participant. This may be one of the unintended (if inevitable) consequences of creating a political party out of a candidate, rather than the other way around. Add to that the fact that En Marche was born as an electoral battle machine, not as a political party, and you can see why keeping it going has proven to be a challenge.

“To be honest, I sort of get the impression that LRM is just a group of sheep being herded by Macron and Christophe Castaner,” Ben told me. “At this point, LRM basically seems like a dormant engine waiting to be started up again for the 2022 elections, when Macron needs it to win his re-election.”

Still, all told, LRM is holding up its end of the bargain. The local councils are still in place and citizen-consultation events continue to be organised almost daily. The party is even launching a “Grande Marche pour l’Europe” at the end of the month, in which party volunteers will go door-to-door asking citizens what they want for France’s future in the EU. This is precisely the kind of grassroots, listen-first politics Macron built his campaign on.

But like most LRM events so far, the expected participation for the “Grande Marche” is lower than low, which leaves us wondering how much of a future LRM truly has.

In the end, we may not be as eager for the political revolution as we said we were.