For the past 25 years, Laurence Haïm has covered American politics for major French news networks. One of the rare French White House correspondents, Haïm has become a celebrity journalist—a status that has enabled her to get two exclusive interviews with Barack Obama, in 2009 and 2015.
But in January, Haïm announced a radical career shift: she would quit journalism, move back to France and join the campaign staff of Emmanuel Macron, the former minister of economy now running for the French presidency on a social liberal platform.
Haïm has repeatedly described the 39-year old candidate as the “French Obama,” praising his energy and enthusiasm. A civil servant-turned-investment banker-turned-politician, Macron launched his movement En Marche! (“Forward!”) last April. Shortly after, he resigned from the government and announced his presidential bid. Totally unknown to French voters three years ago, Macron is now seen as a likely winner of the election the first round of which is scheduled for April 23.
The rising interest in Macron’s candidacy has reached far beyond the borders of France. Around the world, French expats have created hundreds of local sections of En Marche! Last summer, Florent Joly, a 26 year-old product-marketing manager at a leading tech company, launched the New York branch of the movement.
“I had been following Macron for a long time and strongly identified with his rhetoric,” said Joly. “When he founded En Marche!, I contacted the Parisian headquarters and sent my resume to help build the movement here in New York.”
Seven months later, the local group claims a few hundred members—it has nearly 600 likes on its Facebook page—and organizes talks and debates every other week. Across the US, more than 70 committees have been set up. Through a startup-like, decentralized system, local coordinators communicate via Slack or Telegram and share their events and videos on social networks.
Macron’s core message since the start of the campaign has consisted in overcoming the left-right divide that has structured French politics for decades. Having theorized the obsolescence of the conservative and socialist parties, Macron tried to attract supporters from both camps around shared values on the European Union, the job market or anti-corruption measures. His goal is to build what he calls, with a wording reminiscent of the Clinton campaign, a “coalition of the progressives.”
This vision attracted Diego Filiu, a 21-year-old student in international affairs at Columbia University. While he considers himself a left-wing voter, Filiu was receptive to Macron’s approach, his “cosmopolitan and international” discourse and his campaign “geared towards the future.”
“I also liked the character,” Filiu said. “He’s not a professional politician and didn’t build his whole career within a party” as is the case with the other favorites of the election.
When Macron came to campaign in New York last December, he received a warm welcome from students at Columbia and NYU and gave talks in almost flawless English—a performance that only a handful of French politicians can accomplish. After his visit, Filiu, convinced by the candidate’s energy, decided to join En Marche!
Filiu, who has been attending the New York section’s gatherings, noticed that the majority of En Marche!’s supporters came from a political background more conservative than his. Among them is Cyrielle Villepelet, a 29-year old project manager at McKinsey, who has voted for center-right candidates in past elections, but no longer identifies with the largest conservative party, Les Républicains.
“I feel at odds with François Fillon [the candidate of Les Républicains] and his stance on immigration or his personal opposition to gay marriage,” said Villepelet. “I’m also uncomfortable with Fillon’s vision of work, which he describes as a place where people make constant sacrifices. Macron, instead, speaks of an opportunity to fulfill one’s potential.”
Whether they’re leaning to the right or the left of the political spectrum, a common pattern among Macron’s New York supporters is their relative inexperience in campaigning. Very few of them have been active members of a party before this election season.
“For 90 percent of the people around me, it’s the very first time that they’re getting involved in a political movement,” said Joly, the marketing manager. “There’s a genuine desire to gather people around a positive message.”
But for his opponents, Macron is first and foremost the candidate of the upper class. His past as a banker, his pro-EU discourse, or his project to make the labor market more flexible—these are frequently turned against him. A few days ago, Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader of the Front National, called Macron a “globalist” while priding herself on being a true “patriot.”
In a city that is the epicenter of globalization, Macron’s New York supporters are aware of the hostility against the so-called “establishment” from a significant portion of the French electorate. But they’re also fighting against caricatures and stereotypes.
“My parents are farmers from the region of Marseilles,” said Joly. “I’ve been on a scholarship my entire life. Not the typical profile of a privileged one…”
For the legislative election, which will take place one month after the presidential race, Macron has pledged that at least half the candidates of his movement would be new faces from the civil society. French citizens living in the US and Canada have a large constituency of their own with 190,000 potential voters though only a few of them go to the polls (the abstention rate was close to 80 percent at the last legislative election in 2012). Thomas Rossignol, who works at the UN in New York, decided to apply for a spot on the En Marche! list.
“I strongly believe in the idea of general interest,” said the 35-year-old diplomat, who worked for three years at a prominent French charity before joining the UN. “Becoming a deputy would be the last stage of a long personal and professional process.”
In the last weeks of the campaign, Macron’s biggest challenge will be to keep up with his good polling. If he qualifies for the second round of the ballot, he will presumably face Marine Le Pen, who’s been consistently placed first in polls for the election’s first round.
Before getting there, Macron will have to beat his other opponents. So far, the nepotism scandal in which conservative François Fillon has been embroiled for the past two months together with the split of the left-wing vote between Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon have worked in Macron’s favor.
But in the US, more than anywhere else, his supporters remain wary, bearing in mind that this election is as unpredictable as it gets. Donald Trump’s astounding victory last November has obviously contributed to this atmosphere of extreme cautiousness.
“Many journalists, lobbyists and politicians have been in denial regarding the Trump campaign,” said Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute in D.C., who recently joined Macron after years of membership at Les Républicains. “During the American election, people told me that I didn’t understand what happened because I’m French, that Trump didn’t stand a chance against Clinton.”
According to Haddad, the blindness of the American elites, which has prevented many from taking Trump seriously, also looms over France with the risk of seeing Marine Le Pen rise to power. But Haddad believes that Macron is the best candidate to defeat the Front National leader in a run-off.
“Macron has understood that the old parties were out of step with today’s stakes, that the real dividing line was between reformism and conservatism, between globalization and nationalism,” Haddad said.
Featured image: FNMF/N. MERGUI / Flickr