After a year in which the internet turned global politics upside down, Emmanuel Macron is trying to use it to strike a new political balance in France.

The former Minister of the Economy quit the Socialist government in August several months after founding a new political organization, En Marche! (“On the march!” or “Working!”), complete with Yahoo-style exclamation point. Macron believes there is a political center in France that is not being represented by the traditional left-right parties.

To define that center, and help him build a new political movement from scratch, Macron turned to Liegey Muller Pons, a Paris firm that bills itself as “Europe’s first campaign startup.” The firm was founded by three young Parisians who met in the United States while volunteering for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008.

Impressed by the way Obama’s team leveraged deep data analysis to attract, organize, and motivate an army of volunteers, the firm is adapting those tactics for a country where politics and rules around privacy and data are very different. Now that Macron is officially running as an independent candidate in the May 2017 French presidential elections, he will need these digital tools to drive a groundswell of grassroots volunteers to have any hope of success.

“We don’t do digital consulting for how to use Facebook or Twitter,” said Guillaume Liegey, a firm cofounder. “We don’t do fundraising. What we really focus on is large-scale coordination of people on the ground. We like to describe what we do as combining data, digital and human.”

The confounding candidate

To understand En Marche’s digital strategy, it helps to know a bit about Macron and the place he occupies in French politics.

In 2012, Socialist François Hollande was elected president of France, defeating incumbent Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy. Initially, Arnaud Montebourg was appointed Minister of the Economy. Montebourg may be best remembered in Silicon Valley for intervening to block Yahoo’s attempt to buy France’s Dailymotion, but it was just one of several events that left entrepreneurs in France feeling he was less than supportive of startups and innovation.

During a cabinet shakeup in 2014, Montebourg was replaced by Macron, then just 37 years old. His youth, along with his meteoric rise, is just one of many reasons he seems to confound the French establishment. He met his wife, 20 years his senior, when she was his high school French teacher. There is a lively debate among intellectuals about what claims Macron can truly make to being a scholar of philosophy, which he studied at university.

But most puzzling of all was that prior to joining Hollande’s government, Macron was an investment banker, an unusual background for a member of the Socialist Party. In government, he pushed pro-business reforms, angering unions and provoking protest, at one point even prompting a rebellion in the French parliament that almost brought Hollande’s government down. And he has become a vocal supporter of the French Tech initiative that had been launched in 2013 by then-digital minister Fleur Pellerin and expanded under her successor, Axelle Lemaire.

“To be clear about the French momentum, we are accelerating,” he said on stage at the Le Web conference in December 2014. “They key question for us is how to accelerate, and how to help create new businesses. … My job is to be sure that in the coming years we create thousands of new businesses to replace the old ones. … My job is to protect people and allow them to be innovative and take risks.”

Music to the ears of entrepreneurs, but not all French workers. During a face-to-face confrontation with striking union workers this spring, Macron told one angry striker: “The best way to pay for a suit is to work.” Macron had previously let slip that he was no longer officially a member of the Socialist Party. Earlier this year, with Hollande’s popularity slipping into single digits, Macron announced the creation of En Marche.

A political startup

Well before his break with the Socialist Party, Macron has been talking informally with Liegey. The two had met years earlier when Liegey was working as a consultant for McKinsey. Liegey had left to study at Harvard University in 2007 when he got swept up in the excitement of the Obama campaign and decided to volunteer.

While knocking on doors in New Hampshire, Liegey was amazed at the sophistication of data volunteers were given each day in terms of which doors to knock on, which routes to walk, and the profiles of people they were targeting. The experience also convinced him just how powerful face-to-face conversations with voters could be.

“There’s now been a lot of experiments organized that show that the more direct the contact with a voter, the more likely they are to show up at the polls or change their minds,” he said.

Liegey met two other French students in Boston during that time: Arthur Muller and Vincent Pons, who also volunteered for Obama. After moving back to Paris, the trio eventually approached the then-nascent campaign of Hollande in 2012. They suggested they could modernize his campaign efforts by creating more elaborate get-out-the vote efforts enlisting more volunteers, something at the time that wasn’t a standard part of the political playbook for campaigns.

The trio operated on a volunteer basis for Hollande and the Socialist Party. Eventually, they were given a small budget and grew their team to about 15 volunteers. They developed software in-house that drew heavily on the data from the party’s dues-paying membership list of about 150,000 members at the time. These party activists were connected with volunteers to go door-to-door across the country.

“The technology really helped us scale the size of the campaign,” Liegey said.

The result: Over the course of the campaign in 2012, they amassed around 40,000 volunteers who knocked on 5 million doors. Hollande narrowly won with 51.7 percent.

“If you look at campaigning in France, they don’t ask anymore if they should do this type of campaigning,” Liegey said. “They just do it.”

The Great Walk of France

Following the Hollande campaign, the three friends officially created Liegey Muller Pons. Liegey stayed in touch with Macron as he joined the French government. Early in 2016, Macron officially hired the firm to help him flesh out his concept for a new political movement.

At the start, the new team had almost literally no data. Under French privacy laws, people can’t just go down and get copies of voting record databases, or buy third-party databases from market researchers or other politicians as is standard in the U.S. Instead, the group needed people to voluntarily get people to give them their personal information, and to do it on a scale that allow for meaningful insights. That challenge was even greater given that initially, the project was being conducted under the radar.

“There was no database,” Liegey said. “It was prepared in secret. They didn’t want leaks.”

Eventually, Macron went public with En Marche, which he said would start with a “Grande Marche.” That is, a process to have conversations with citizens across the country and use their input to create a platform for the new movement. The group launched a website and invited volunteers to register.

Within a few weeks, the site attracted 30,000 registrations. The En Marche team started using that data to enlist volunteers who would go out into neighborhoods, knock on doors, and conduct interviews. Liegey said they were hoping to get 6,000 volunteers, but only got 5,000. Initially, he was disappointed, but in retrospect he feels good about the conversion rate of volunteers for such a new effort.

Those volunteers were given some basic training in interview techniques and managing other volunteers. Initially, the team tried to develop a voice app for volunteers to record interviews, but it proved to be too difficult to capture good sound in the field, and then it would require transcription. Instead, they developed an app that allowed the team to write keyword answers to a handful of general questions:

  • What works in France?
  • What doesn’t work in France? (Top two answers: education system and politics)
  • If you were to say one word about politics in France, what would it be?
  • Tell us about the best/worst experience you had in the past year? (The wave of terrorist attacks over the past two years was by far the largest response for “worst.”)
  • Can you tell us about a very concrete local initiative around you?
appli_la_grande-marche_0

Above: The “Grande Marche” app

By now, the team had managed to take the new data it had accumulated on En Marche members and merge it with aggregate and demographic data to create a more sophisticated view of the French electorate. It still didn’t allow the precision available to politicians in the U.S., but they felt they were operating on a more sophisticated level than other French political parties.

For several weeks in the spring and summer of 2016, En Marche volunteers knocked on doors to gather even more data. But just as important, the idea was to create a culture within En Marche that was more engaged, to have an impact on the volunteers as much as to attract interest from potential voters. They wanted En Marche members to interact with more than just other En Marche volunteers.

“We want to force our members to go out of their inner circle and their neighborhoods and engage with different people,” Liegey said. “We want to use that to understand what is at stake in the country right now. But we also want to send a message that we are here to listen.”

Over a three-month period, En Marche’s 5,000 volunteers knocked on 300,000 doors, spoke to 100,000 people, and filled out 25,000 questionnaires.

Words, words, words

The next step was to hand all this data over to Paris-based Proxem, a startup that does semantic analysis of text. Proxem used algorithms to sort the responses to not just rank which were the most popular responses, but to determine sentiment and strength of responses (i.e., did the respondent feel strongly or not?).

Data analysis in hand, Macron held three town halls across France in October to deliver what he called the “diagnostic.” The meetings lasted two to three hours and were livestreamed. Before Macron spoke, presenters gave fairly detailed explanations of how this process worked that included a 40-page explanatory document and results from Proxem in the form of a 176-page analysis.

According to the results, the two biggest themes that emerged were “family” and “social protection.” The most important values: solidarity and integrity. And, conveniently, the analysts detected a strong desire to see a renewal in France’s political life.

“The French appear to be suffering, because they feel they no longer control their own destiny, and that our democratic system is closed to them,” Macron said at one diagnostic. “This is not only a French malaise, but a malaise we find everywhere in Europe because we have a world that is changing brutally.”

Following a whirlwind of publicity from the town halls, Macron declared on November 16 that he would be a candidate for president in the May 2017 elections. He announced his candidacy in a livestream on Facebook, but also with a Medium blog post.

“I am convinced that our country has the strength and the desire to move forward because it has the history and the people for it,” he wrote (in French, here). “But France today has left the path of progress.”

The underdog

While political pundits still peg Macron as a long shot, his campaign has captured the imagination of many young people and entrepreneurs in France. Axelle Tessandier may be the perfect example.

Tessandier left France in 2009 on a journey that took her to startup worlds in Berlin and then San Francisco, before she returned to Paris in 2016. After helping Kickstarter launch in France, she founded her own firm, the Axl Agency, that helps companies build innovative cultures.

Last year, she was invited to moderate a debate by a group of Macron supporters. That caught the eye of En Marche’s leadership, who then asked her to participate in a more official event over the summer. As she learned more about Macron and En Marche, she found herself thinking it was the beginning of something remarkable.

“Sometimes the criticisms are really targeted toward Macron,” she said. “But they forget how new it is to have a movement that takes three months to go meet thousands of people and talk to them and to listen to them. What other political group has done this kind of open process from the beginning? They created a new movement in a very, very closed system. And suddenly, you have a 39-old innovator running for president.”

This fall, Tessandier was named one of the 11 official ambassadors of En Marche. She’s not worried about the verdicts of pundits, noting that predictions across the board have been way off this past political year. And she said the inspiration and optimism she and others feel from Macron is real.

“I want us to be the passion vote,” she said. “I want us to be the conviction vote. I want to talk about what kind of society we want to create.”

That enthusiasm was on display when En March convened in Paris on December 10 for a conference that drew a surprising 15,000 attendees.

Since then, Hollande has since decided not to seek a second term, leaving the Socialist Party to hold a primary this month to seek a new candidate. The conservative Republican party selected the hard-right François Fillon as its candidate, while Marie Le Pen is head of the even further right National Front party.

Conventional political wisdom is that the final showdown will be between Fillon and Le Pen. But there have been some more positive polls indicating Macron is gaining ground. And meanwhile, En Marche claims to have 120,000 members registered, who have formed 3,000 local committees and hold on average 400 events each week.

Meanwhile, Macron has been on the move non-stop. The textual analysis from the Grande Marche continues to be mined for keywords Macron uses in his speeches, and to adapt them as he visits different regions and different audiences. And they are providing a wealth of anecdotes about real people and their challenges, Liegey said.

Macron’s and En Marche’s platform continues to evolve. But he has continued to make investment in technology and innovation a key part of his campaign. He has proposed work reforms that make it easier for people to start businesses and work independently. Yet those reform will likely continue to rankle those who worry that he will remove too many classic protections enjoyed by French workers.

In the next five months, En Marche and Macron will discover whether this political startup can find a center that’s large enough to propel him to victory.

“The digital revolution is doing to destroy some things, and at the same time, it creates opportunity,” Macron said in November during a visit to Toulouse. “It’s important to protect the individual, but also that society accepts risk and the failures. This is a time of revolution for everything, and that includes politics.”