Even by today’s standards of surprising politics, this year’s French elections were truly exceptional. This is the story of how Tectonica’s digital design work and the movement-building power of NationBuilder helped the legislative team of France’s new president Emmanuel Macron grow from barely registering a presence to taking over the National Assembly in a matter of weeks.
In an age of political happenings that seem almost impossible, France’s presidential elections this year was still an outlier. President Hollande’s dismal standings after five years of leadership suggested a losing campaign, so Hollande himself opted to step aside rather than run a non-starter of a campaign. The Les Républicains’ candidate meanwhile, became embroiled in a scandal of epic proportions. Mélenchon, on the extreme left, garnered more support than in the past, but his views were far too extreme for the general electorate of France to support, especially his anti-EU stance.
This left many wondering if France would see its own Trump-ian far right populist upset with a win for Marine Le Pen, daughter of the classic hard right nationalist who represented everything extreme: anti-immigration, anti-LBGTI, anti-muslim, anti-semitic and pro-police state.
Out of this context rose the presidential candidacy of Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist party member and former Minister of Economy. It seemed almost naive to think a man who had never been elected and was younger than anyone ever to hold the office he was seeking could possibly win. Yet this past year seems to not fall short of seemingly impossible things coming to pass.
Macron defined a vision for his country to his electorate that sought to rise above traditional politics of the country and bring solutions that would make the Republic stronger and better for its citizens. He spoke to an optimistic new age of politics that left behind the entrenched ways of the past French political class. He sought to address major issues the country faces including high unemployment, implementing universal retirement rules, improving public education, improving business relations, and remaining a strong leader of the EU.
The final showing was a clear rally of support for the newcomer to the world of electoral politics. Macron won with 66.1% of the vote in an electoral run off against Marie Le Pen who garnered 33.9%. It was also the first time in the history of the 5th Republique that neither of the two traditional major parties, Les Républicains nor Le Parti Socialiste, were in the final round.
The result of Macron’s historic presidential win was nothing short of outstanding: a sense of hope for a new form of politics and the defeat of extreme rightwing ideology. Macron’s clear vision for the country and his positioning himself right out of the gate as an opposition voice to the absurdity of Trump’s inspired a nation. However, the question of whether he would be able to implement significant policy change remained. Without any support in the parliament, would he be caught trying to negotiate with other parties to pass policies, not coming from one of the established parties nor having their support?
In addition, Macron’s legislative needs were faced with the challenge of not having any party history, infrastructure, or even official candidates. Prior to May 11th - within a month of the first round of elections - En Marche ! didn’t have candidates declared for running. One would think Macron’s meteoric rise to presidency might be politically tempered by its serving only as a symbolic rise of one man to leadership if he could not implement policy. A phenomenon as such is easy to get excited about, but would it impact change in the real world of French politics? Certainly going against long-established parties and their massive infrastructures to carry any weight in the legislature seemed almost a fool’s errand.
But the Macron movement never viewed the odds as much as the enthusiasm and the hope for a different type of politics for the country. Above the optimism of hope that the movement was built on, new movements today have an advantage that movements in the past did not: digital organizing!
Traditional movements of the past would have to rely on the infrastructure of pre-existing establishment to grow - a long process that required insider acceptance. They would have to utilize the membership of parties who had spent years connecting and building relationships with communities and pass their message through the filter of traditional media of newspapers and television.
The Economist described Macron’s new approach as such: “Dismayed by politicians’ failure to curb the rise of Ms Le Pen’s FN, he argued that confidence in mainstream politics would be restored only by closer, more meaningful links between deputies and voters. “What doesn’t work anymore is the party system,” he told The Economist last year: “We need to find far more direct forms of exchange with people.” He launched En Marche! last April to that effect, using social media to spread the movement, drawing people into politics who had previously been put off by the sect-like approach to party activism.”
Without a history as a party and just months before the elections LREM created a process of calling for applications online. More than 15,000 people answered that call. The new party implemented a commitment to ensure that at least half of the candidates had never held political positions and just as many were women. Their background ranged “from diverse fields of academia, business or local activism. They include a mathematician, a former bullfighter and anti-corruption magistrates.” reported the Guardian.
The selection comprised “an army of novice candidates standing for President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République en Marche! (LRM) who, without pike or pitchfork, [mounted] a peaceful revolution in democratic politics.” said the Economist. And what better tool to achieve these ends than that of NationBuilder?
At the very core of what NationBuilder is sits the fundamental vision of its founder Jim Gilliam, who wanted to create a tool that would allow any leader with a vision to build a movement and with that movement maybe even change the world - in ways sometimes small and other times enormous. Whether it was the rise of the Scottish National Party in fighting for their own sovereign nation or the UK Women’s Equality Party which started as a simple mayoral run and grew to a coalition of significant force. Indeed the platform has a history of being utilized by successful challengers from outside the political establishment. Marcon’s is definitely one of these larger globally significant wins.
NationBuilder is uniquely positioned to build movements fast. It’s out-of-the-box set of community organizing and campaigning tools are entirely integrated and built in a way that it includes everything a campaign needs to succeed. Indeed more than just a website to address party needs the NationBuilder system allows for network of individual sites for each candidate which are fully action-based campaign hubs. Each of these integrates fully with a database of supporters to manage all key action from events to volunteers to communications. The system is also deeply integrated with social networks such as twitter and facebook. It is no wonder the digital team at En Marche ! saw such great potential in the system to quickly set up candidates in the weeks leading up to the elections.
NationBuilder Network is a strong feature currently being used by a number of political parties to provide independent websites for individual candidates, offices, and local chapters seamlessly integrated in a digital infrastructure that makes it possible for party HQ to provide every candidate’s campaign with all their digital needs in one system. Instead of weeks or months to set up campaign infrastructure, it takes hours or days.
This is where we at Tectonica had the honor to be of service, bringing our years of experience in movement building digital design for political parties using the NationBuilder system to the party’s campaign efforts.
We designed and implemented a replicable theme that could be used as a template to be copied and customized simply for each of the candidates. The sites were designed and built with consideration for the fact that most if not all candidates would not have their own team of staff with experience running digital campaigns to set up and run their websites.
It was key to build a theme that would allow for candidates to have their own website set up with a great deal of ease and in a very short time, with sitemap structure that would present key campaign information: the candidates, their story, news, events and a volunteer sections that will help them build the much needed support among their constituency. Candidates also had options for more advanced features of NationBuilder such as pledges of support, idea crowdsourcing, and petitions.
Working with reference to Macron’s pre-existing digital web identity and unique brand, one which well reflected the maverick new approach to french politics, we developed a modular structure that would help keep web sections manageable, using a minimal amount of “fixed” elements and ensuring all the content was customizable by the candidates. At the same time, these requirements were designed to maximize the advantages of NationBuilder’s dynamic functionalities and template specifications. It was crucial that, while the sites were easy to deploy, there would be the ability to control the core theme functionalities in a centralized way.
The final outcome could not have been more clear. This weekend LREM won an absolute majority in the French National Assembly taking some 360 of the 577 seats. Said the Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis “The scale of Macron’s absolute majority shows the extent to which the new president, a newcomer to party politics, has managed to transform the French political landscape in record time. Sixteen months ago, his LREM movement did not exist. Now it is set to dominate legislation...”
While the rise of a legislative victory from a movement that has no historical party infrastructure might not have been possible in the past, the ability to do such in this age is made possible in part by the digital tools such as NationBuilder, which allows candidates to rapidly set up a digital presence in order to reach out directly to constituents.
Edouard Philippe, France’s new Prime Minister said of the new parliament: “It will have one mission: to act for France. Through this vote, the vast majority of French have chosen hope over anger, confidence over turning in on themselves.”