French Presidential Candidate Macron Takes Page From American Political Playbook

Originally published on April 19, 2017 5:54 am

This weekend, voters in France head to the polls in the first round of the presidential election.

One of the leading contenders is political newcomer Emmanuel Macron.

His supporters are using an American tactic, unfamiliar to French voters. The French rarely knock on their neighbors' doors. So, asking a stranger to talk politics during election season is something new.

Christelle Dernon, 25, has decided to step out of her comfort zone for Macron, her presidential pick.

"It's not normal," she says." People are quite surprised that we just knock on their doors to talk about politics. They're not used to that."

Dernon makes her way into a social housing complex in the 18th district of Paris, a working-class neighborhood. People there used to vote socialist, but this year many say they are undecided — which makes them a prime target for Macron's volunteers.

She knocks on a door. The woman who answers says her husband is a taxi driver who has lost 30 percent of his business to Uber. Macron supports the ride share service, but the woman is open to persuasion. Dernon explains the candidate's policy to create more jobs and leaves a brochure.

Another house call results in a heated ten-minute debate.

Dernon says it's the undecided voters that excite her the most.

"Because the guy was unsure about his vote ... just for having us and discussing with us, he was convinced in the end," she says. "In the end, he will help us relay the program to his friends and family."

By the end of the day, Dernon and other volunteers in the 18th arrondissement knocked on more than 1,900 doors and spoke to nearly 600 people.

Knocking on doors is a tactic that was used by another politician who, like Macron, was an inexperienced newcomer when he first appeared on the scene. His name was Barack Obama.

"What we've seen in all the political studies, going door-to-door, having an exchange face-to-face, it raises the chance of persuading someone to vote by eight-to-ten times," says Lex Paulson, an American who worked on Obama's 2008 campaign. Paulson now teaches political science in Paris and is an unpaid adviser to Macron.

Paulson says he's hearing the same frustrations from French voters that he heard when he worked for Obama.

"I feel the stakes are exactly the same here, and even more urgent now that America has gone the direction it has gone," Paulson says. "I think this is the most important campaign in the world right now."

If Macron does make it to the second round, he's likely to meet the extreme right candidate Marine Le Pen in the runoff. He's hoping the new tactic of talking to voters on their doorsteps will help him win enough national support to defeat Le Pen and become the next president of France.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This weekend, France holds the first round of its presidential election.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The future of Europe is set to be on the line. One candidate, Marine Le Pen, opposes immigration and more broadly opposes the European Union, which is already losing Britain. The other three leading candidates favor the E.U.

INSKEEP: And they include political newcomer Emmanuel Macron. His supporters are gathering voters for him using a tactic imported from the United States of America. That's right. France gave the U.S. the Statue of Liberty, and now, Jake Cigainero reports, the United States has given France campaign workers going door to door.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Bonjour.

JAKE CIGAINERO, BYLINE: The French rarely knock on their neighbors' doors, so asking a stranger to talk politics during election season is something new. Twenty-five-year-old Cristelle Dernon has decided to step out of her comfort zone for her presidential pick, Emmanuel Macron.

CRISTELLE DERNON: I wouldn't say that it's normal. People are quite surprised that we just knock on their doors to talk about politics. They're not used to that.

CIGAINERO: Dernon makes her way into a social housing complex in the 18th district of Paris, a working-class neighborhood. People here used to vote socialist. But this year, many say they are undecided, which makes them a prime target for Macron's volunteers.

DERNON: (Speaking in French).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking in French).

CIGAINERO: This woman says her husband is a taxi driver who has lost 30 percent of his business to Uber.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French) Uber (speaking French).

GREENE: Macron supports the ride-share service, but the woman is open to persuasion. Dernon explains the candidate's policy to create more jobs and leaves a brochure. Another call results in a heated 10-minute debate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

DERNON: (Speaking French).

CIGAINERO: Dernon says it's the undecided voters that excite her the most.

DERNON: Because the guy was actually unsure about his vote. And just for having us and discussing with us, he was actually convinced in the end. And I think he will help us relay the program and everything to his friends and family.

CIGAINERO: It's a tactic borrowed from another politician who, like Macron, was an inexperienced newcomer when he first appeared on the scene. His name was Barack Obama.

LEX PAULSON: What we've seen is that, in all the political science studies, going door-to-door, having an exchange face-to-face - it raises the chance of persuading someone to vote by eight to 10 times.

CIGAINERO: Lex Paulson is an American who worked on Obama's 2008 bid. He now teaches political science in Paris and is an unpaid adviser to Macron. Paulson says he's hearing the same frustrations from French voters that he heard when he worked for Obama.

PAULSON: It feels like the stakes are exactly the same here and maybe even more urgent now that America has gone the direction it's gone. I think that this is the most important campaign in the world right now.

CIGAINERO: If Macron does make it to the second round, he's likely to meet extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the runoff. He's hoping the new tactic of talking to voters on their doorsteps will help him win enough national support to defeat Le Pen and become the next president of France. For NPR News, I'm Jake Cigainero in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOW DANCING SOCIETY'S "I"M NOT READY YET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.