While I’ve always been a major political wonk, I also don’t know nearly as much about politics outside the US. And even as I’ve heard about conservative French politics in recent years, I still don’t know too much about it. While it’s a world apart from American politics on the surface, it does offer plenty of lessons to those willing to listen. I recently read an article about what Donald Trump can learn from French politics, particularly two examples: socialist François Mitterrand in the 80s and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy’s self-sabotage in the late 2000s.
France’s constitution is a mix of American-style presidentialism with British-style parliamentarianism. When the president, prime minister and parliamentary majority are all part of the same party, then the president is in charge, yet the president is a lame duck if he’s in a different party than the other two. Mitterrand was elected president in 1981 for a seven-year term, but in 1986 elections his party lost the parliamentary election to the conservative right. While Chirac wanted to undo the socialist reforms of his predecessor and pass his own conservative reforms, Mitterrand was able to use the presidential pulpit and a liberal mainstream media to weaken Chirac’s authority. In two years, the political situation had changed dramatically, and allowed Mitterrand to win reelection and earn a working majority at the National Assembly.
Even if Obama has just a couple weeks left of his presidency, he can use the same methods against Trump, ordering various initiatives and orders to run against his stated goals. He’s already taken plenty of steps, and more could come before January 20th. Yet after he leaves the White House, Obama can still do plenty; he’s still fairly young and can be an active writer, lecturer or NGO icon. Thanks to rising political polarization in the US, Obama can wage a moral war against Trump.
Now, let’s look at Sarkozy. In 2007, the charismatic conservative reformer was elected president by a strong margin. He was in a good place, with his party winning 313 out of 577 possible seats at the National Assembly. Yet then it went downhill. Rather than concentrate on his proposed reform package, Sarkozy wasted his time on poorly-conceived and unconvincing micro-decisions. By insisting on being the one and only government manager, all criticism landed on him. He relinquishes whole parts of his platform, including national identity, by systematically putting people with liberal or immigrant backgrounds into his cabinet as opposed to conservatives. This made many conservative voters feel betrayed, and Sarkozy lost reelection to François Hollande.
Hopefully, Trump will be able to avoid the pitfalls that claimed Sarkozy and Chirac; he definitely recognizes that he won the election because people believed in him, and expect him to keep his promises. And if he doesn’t deliver, he’ll face disappointment and anger even more enthusiastic than the support he gained on the campaign trail. It’s important for presidents to never forget what is expected from them.