ON SUNDAYS, DELPHINE O stands in the middle of a Paris street market while vendors hawk vegetables, meat, and spices around her. In her very diverse district, home to many African, Asian, and Arab immigrants, not many recognize O as a member of Parliament, but they stop and vent about the government. “My neighborhood weighs heavily on the left of the political spectrum, so we have some lively discussions,” she says. “But we have a lot of support, too.”
When O, MPP 2014, returned to Paris in 2015, she never imagined she’d be elected to the National Assembly at age 31. Initiating dialogues with strangers isn’t easy for her. But she believes it’s a crucial part of France’s new political reality.
O is among four Kennedy School alums immersed in a transformation of French politics that started in 2016, when an Obama-esque campaign, designed in part by Guillaume Liegey MPA 2010, launched Emmanuel Macron to an improbable victory over Marine Le Pen.
With the help of Liegey’s tech start-up and impassioned followers like O, Macron “found a way to bypass an ossified party system to directly engage people in a political dialogue,” says Marshall Ganz, a Kennedy School senior lecturer in public policy. “That engagement in listening and response was a very different way of doing politics in France.”
Macron is propelling his reformist agenda with the help of many first-time politicians elected in June 2017: among them are O; the economist and global public policy specialist Amelie de Montchalin MPA 2014; and Brune Poirson MC/MPA 2017, an expert on sustainable development.
IN 2008, LIEGEY, 28, had just started at the Kennedy School when he met Vincent Pons, then 25, who was pursuing a PhD in economics at MIT and Arthur Muller, also 25, who was studying philosophy at Harvard and taking a class at the Kennedy School. Like Liegey, Muller and Pons were born and raised in northeastern France and followed U.S. politics avidly.
The three volunteered for Obama. Canvassing door-to-door in Manchester, New Hampshire, Liegey became curious about the science underlying the campaign. How did organizers determine where to send volunteers? Why knock on doors when you could use social media?
At the Kennedy School, Ganz introduced Liegey to the way in which the grassroots base of the Obama campaign had been organized. Pons, now an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, was working with the MIT economist Esther Duflo to test the efficacy of social programs. What if, the friends wondered, they applied Duflo’s scientific methods to French politics?
Liegey and Pons randomly chose about 24,000 immigrants and native-born citizens in eight cities surrounding Paris who, in the weeks leading up to the 2010 regional elections, were encouraged by party workers to vote. The study found that face-to-face visits increased immigrant turnout by 3.4 percent in the first round of voting and 2.8 percent in the second—numbers large enough to sway an election.
Unpaid, with no official mandate, Liegey spent more than a year assembling a fledgling group of 1,000 field-workers. When François Hollande was nominated in the September 2011 primary, Liegey, Pons, and Muller persuaded his organization to hire them.
They mobilized 80,000 volunteers, three times the typical number, and knocked on 5 million doors, reaching 10 percent of the French electorate. French media called it the largest field campaign ever organized in Europe.
The following spring, Hollande eked out a victory over the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. At the end of 2012, the three entrepreneurs founded Liegey Muller Pons (LMP) to develop software tools that identified key constituents—most significant, neglected or unregistered voters who could be instrumental on Election Day.
WHEN O RETURNED TO FRANCE after years abroad, she moved into northeast Paris. Encompassing the 19th arrondissement, her district is home to dozens of nationalities from sub-Saharan, northern, and central Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Since late 2016, hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan and Africa have camped out in tents and makeshift structures near an asylum center there.
O sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and is drafting policy to address the refugee crisis. “We’re trying to change the asylum process, because France has done a very small part on the European level,” she says.
“A lot of the migrants actually don’t come from Syria and Afghanistan," she says. “They come from western Africa, and there is this distinction we make between political refugees and economic climbers. This is hard, because we have to take these people, and at the same time, we can’t take them.”
O has lived in the United States and Germany, South Korea and Iran, working in international relations and, for a time, for an NGO in Kabul that engaged Afghan women in democratic life. She taught refugees French. She is sympathetic to their plight and also passionate about improving living conditions in her district.
“I have to strike a balance between understanding the security concerns of the inhabitants and concerns about issues such as terrorism,” she says. “At the same time, we’re trying to think long-term of how we want to form this society together. They have to adapt to our society, but we also have to adapt to them. It’s a profound change for French society.”
WHILE AT THE KENNEDY SCHOOL, Amelie de Montchalin tagged along with American friends campaigning for Obama in 2012. Six months ago, she found herself knocking on doors in the 6th district of Essonne, a rural area 15 kilometers south of Paris. Farmers asked why she wasn’t home with her husband and children. Their curiosity about her unorthodox approach eventually led to dialogues about local and national issues.
Now, as whip of the National Assembly’s finance committee, de Montchalin has the daunting task of realigning France’s fiscal framework. Working as an economist for an international insurance firm didn’t fully prepare her for a governmental budget that many view as a black box. It had become a ritual for citizens to expect rude surprises each September, when drastic cuts were announced. It’s taken de Montchalin months to “establish a clear and fact-based understanding of what the problems are, where the money was spent, and where we need to put more,” she says. “Our policy is to propose a fiscal and tax framework that will help the country stop accumulating big debts and allow real change to happen in France.”
The French have a deeply ingrained cultural belief that public spending is always good, she says. But with public spending at 57 percent of GDP, many still subsist below the poverty line. “We should be the richest, most comfortable, luxurious country in the world,” she says. “Which we are in many ways, but not in the way people would imagine.” A top priority is creating jobs and convincing people it’s in their best interests to work rather than rely on public assistance. A substantial chunk of de Montchalin’s time is devoted to public education. To the shock of many, for six weeks she talked about the 2018-2022 budget only in terms of political choices, without citing numbers. “Apparently I’m doing well, because people quite like to listen to me,” she says with a laugh. She is exhilarated by her job but stressed by a constitutional requirement that Parliament pass a budget in no more than 70 days.
ON NOVEMBER 8, Brune Poirson outlined the president’s energy objectives before the National Assembly. One goal, she noted, is to reduce nuclear power to 50 percent of France’s energy mix by 2025 by eliminating 17 reactors. At this, a right-leaning Republican MP shouted, “Stop this!” Another interjected, “The time of the campaign is over!” “The future belongs to renewable energy,” Poirson continued, while Republicans jeered and applause broke out among Macron’s La République En Marche! (REM) representatives. O, who also deals with controversial issues, says that despite REM’s majority in the National Assembly, “a lot of old-school ways and attitudes remain.”
Poirson says the government needs to come up with a realistic timeline for converting to alternative and innovative sustainable energy sources. Energy storage, she notes, is a major technical challenge. But “we think that climate and nuclear are not antinomic, contrary to what some would like to suggest,” she says.
Born in Washington, DC, but raised in one of France’s most underprivileged districts, Poirson represents Vaucluse’s third district in southern France, where she defeated the right-wing National Front. The district had previously been represented by Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a popular politician in France and the niece of Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Front. Poirson campaigned for months, finishing up her studies at HKS from the campaign field. “It was a very harsh campaign, but intense field work, building on the lessons of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, and Macron’s credible policy proposals helped secure victory.”
In June, she was appointed secretary of state under Ecology Minister Nicolas Hulot. Poirson is in charge of environmental health, the circular economy, and international negotiations. One of her main roles is to help transform the European Union. Poirson was “struck by the lack of collective political ambition for the environment at the European level. It requires a lot of energy to bring politics back into European negotiations,” she says. “Too often bureaucrats end up making crucial decisions. This has to change. The recent decision on glyphosate [to approve the continued use of a herbicide] proves that it is possible.”
A typical week for Poirson includes a clean energy conference in Brussels, meeting with venture capitalists, developing common policies with heads of Latin American and Caribbean countries, announcing a national action plan for landscape ecology, reviewing studies on endocrine disruptors and herbicides, and almost daily National Assembly committee meetings.
Poirson, 35, who lived for five years in India working with global environmental and energy company Veolia to bring running water to slum dwellers in South Asia, is “emblematic of the new Macron generation," a journalist wrote during the campaign—young, passionate, tireless. “It’s an amazing job, being part of the French government at such a turning point in French history” Poirson says.
De Montchalin, Poirson, and O were among more than 14,000 potential parliamentary candidates fielded by Macron, who disseminated videos encouraging women to apply. Macron’s centrist coalition claimed a landslide 350 seats out of 577, a commanding majority, and achieved compliance for the first time with a French law requiring men and women to be equally represented in Parliament.
“I’m hopeful we will deliver the real, profound change we promised,” O says. “Because if we fail, nationalism and Europhobia will take over. I hope that in five years, French society will be more confident, more open and less conservative. This is definitely the most exciting time to be in French politics in the past 50 years.”
GANZ, THE ADVISOR BEHIND the grassroots component of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, believes that Macron allowed Liegey to enact key elements of the Obama campaign’s field program developing a relational connection to voters.
Typically, French campaign outreach had been limited to leaflets, posters, and lofty rhetoric. Using data from the Ministry of the Interior and a national statistics and economic research institute, LMP mined poll results from every election conducted since 1981 in 67,000 French municipalities.
An algorithm matched census data to voter rolls, pinpointing neighborhoods that represented the country as a whole. An army of canvassers then began a “listening” campaign, engaging voters in a dialogue. Some residents, especially immigrants, “were very surprised when we came knocking on doors during the campaign, because they had never seen either the mayor or a politician,” O recalls. She says she and other MPs are committed to maintaining the momentum of interacting directly with constituents, which is why she heads to the street markets at least one or two days a week.
As the world awaits the results of Macron’s ambitious undertaking, LMP is growing with help from venture capital. Ganz predicts that LMP’s tools will be in high demand. “When somebody wins, and wins in a novel way, everybody wants in on that,” he says. “The world is watching to see where this goes.”
Liegey considers himself an idealist. “We would never work for a populist candidate like Marine Le Pen, or Donald Trump, or the Brexit campaign,” he says. He adds that although the firm sold its software to several parties during the National Assembly elections, they are committed progressives. Most important, they changed the very nature of politics in France.
LMP’s approach is not unique, Liegey says. “It’s not American. It’s not French. We are all human beings. Direct, face-to-face contact is something very powerful.”
Deborah Halber is a freelance journalist, science writer, and author of The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases.
Photos by Hannah Starman, Xenia Viragh, Samy Lemedy, and Kent Dayton