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ANALYSIS: What makes a winning French presidential candidate

Emmanuel Macron gives  a speech
Emmanuel Macron became president of France after creating his own political movement. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP)
The common touch, smart media strategy, a reputation as a good lover? We asked the experts what is the secret ingredient for a successful French presidential bid.

The French go to the polls next year to elect the person who will lead them for the next five years. 

France voted for its first president in 1848 and since then, all of the country’s leaders have been white and male – so besides a melanin deficiency and a penis, what do the candidates need in order to win? 

READ ALSO Five minutes to understand France’s 2022 presidential elections

A political movement 

Belonging to a political party or movement is key to a successful bid according to Émeric Bréhier, director of the political observatory at the Jean Jaurès Foundation and a former socialist MP – although not necessarily one of the traditional parties. 

“Belonging to a structured organisation is important – it shows that you are not alone,” he said. 

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But this doesn’t rule out people who don’t belong to the two traditional political parties in France, Les Républicains and Parti Socialiste – Macron is the classic example of a politician who created his own grassroots movement, while his former prime minister Edouard Philippe – widely tipped to run in 2027 – has also recently created a political movement. 

When Macron created En Marche, in 2016, this was seen as a sign that he was serious about becoming a presidential candidate, explained Bréhier.

“He showed that a Mr Nobody could become President of the Republic. Once the Macron comet started to rise, it created a political structure very quickly.”

Although political parties in France have smaller memberships than in some other European countries, they allow candidates to draw on pooled expertise. 

“You need to have people who know how to campaign. There are also legal questions – you need people who know the election rules. You need people who know how to book rally venues, of which there are not many in France. If you don’t book them well in advance, there is no space. You need people to campaign for you across the country, organise meetings, run the logistics and print posters. All of this is extremely important,” said Bréhier. 

Belonging to a political party, particularly one of the traditional established ones, is also useful when it comes to collecting the 500 signatures from elected officials necessary to get onto the ballot.

It also helps attract campaign financing. 

READ ALSO Who’s who in the crowded field vying to unseat Macron?

A great but humble figure 

To win a presidential election in France, you must show that you are a heroic figure worth of the role – while simultaneously being relatable and down-to-earth, according to Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist. 

“Charles De Gaulle may have been the original inspiration for leaders of the fifth republic but the model of strong, authoritative, leaders goes back much further in time – France is the country of Napoleon and Louis XIV even,” he said. “Candidates have to show that they are the only person for the job. They have to show that they can incarnate the role of President.”

At the last election Macron presented himself as a youthful candidate with the energy needed to reform France and stamped his authority as soon as he entered office. 

“We saw this through gestures such as the handshake with Donald Trump and refusing to back down to the head of the army [General Pierre de Villiers, who resigned following proposed spending cuts in 2017],” said Cautrès. 

Macron’s vulnerability this time around may be the perception that he is out of touch. 

“Over the past 20 or 30 years, another characteristic has become important: relatability. It is important for candidates to show that they are close to the general population. François Hollande was very strong in this respect,” said Cautrès. 

“Macron’s inability to understand the people has been seen as his weakness from the beginning. We have seen throughout his mandate that he is not in touch with French people.” 

READ ALSO How to register and cast your vote in France

Strong political messaging and media strategy

France has more political programmes on TV and the radio than most other European countries. Knowing how to navigate the media plays an important role in winning elections, according to Claire Sécail, a social scientist specialising in political communication. 

“You need to have visibility, control of the narrative and a strong individual personality,” she said. “Each candidate runs their media strategy differently. Some will bring in professionals. Others rely more on personal connections with people working in the media.” 

In the last presidential election, Macron ran a highly effective media strategy according to Sécail. 

As a minister in the Hollande government, he made a point of engaging with international media to sell his image. In 2015, he began engaging more intensely with domestic French media, before launching his party. As campaigning began, Macron made a point of giving interviews to small regional outlets as long as the leading nationals. 

“Macron could count on his network of leading figures in French media. He had support from the publishing houses – remember that the media is also a business and that there was a certain entrepreneurial logic there too,” she said.

Running as a relative outsider from outside the traditional parties, as Macron did, can be beneficial. 

“In journalism, people become very quickly interested in new faces. The big losers are the traditional parties,” said Sécail.

In 2017 much of the buzz was around ‘new boy’ Macron, this time early press coverage has focused on far-right political pundit Eric Zemmour, who is making his first foray into elections (although he has not yet declared as a candidate). As a long-time TV pundit, he is also able to draw on personal connections in the media.

Virile masculinity

As mentioned, France has never had a female president, and experts that The Local has previously spoken to say this is unlikely to change in 2022.

READ ALSO Why has there never been a female president of France?

One reason mentioned for this was the image of the president – who is the head of state and nominal leader of the army as well as the government – as a virile leader of men.

“We have this image of the president as a solitary man with a reputation for being a powerful lover,” said Sandrine Lévêque, a professor at Sciences Po Lille.

“This virility is seen as a composite part of power. The woman that Emmanuel Macron loves is an older woman. Because of sexism, this led some to accuse him of being gay and having sexual adventures with men. He was obligated to argue otherwise.” 


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