On the face of it, French politics is worlds apart from American politics. Still, President-elect Donald J. Trump can learn a lot from it.
He should be aware of two French precedents in particular: how François Mitterrand, a defeated French socialist president, destroyed Jacques Chirac, a winning conservative prime minister, in the late 1980s; and how Nicolas Sarkozy, a French conservative president, went into self-destruction in the late 2000s.
Mitterrand had been elected president in France in 1981 for a seven-year term (French presidential terms were shortened to five years in 2000). Five years later, in 1986, his socialist party lost the parliamentary election to the conservative right led by Gaullist Jacques Chirac, with far-reaching consequences. The present constitution of France — a creation of General Charles de Gaulle — is a mix of American-style presidentialism and Westminster-style parliamentarism. When the president, the prime minister, and the parliamentary majority belong to the same party, the president is clearly in charge. However, when the prime minister and the parliamentary majority do not belong to the president’s party, the prime minister emerges as the effective ruler. And the president is just a lame duck.
This is what was supposed to happen in 1986 after Chirac’s victory. The new premier was eager to dismantle the socialist reforms that Mitterrand, as a president, had introduced over the previous years, and to pass his own conservative reforms. Mitterrand could not veto him frontally. But he could do something else: use the presidential pulpit as a lethal weapon, on ethical or philosophical grounds, and weaken the prime minister’s authority with the support and complicity of the liberal mainstream media.
In fact, Chirac was intimidated and withdrew many of his policies.
Two years later, the political situation had changed dramatically. Mitterrand was reelected president for a second seven-year term — against Chirac. And he recaptured a working majority at the National Assembly.
Mutatis mutandis, the same methods can be wielded by Barack H. Obama, the outgoing president, against Donald J. Trump. Until his very last day as president, Obama can issue an unlimited number of orders or initiatives that run against Trump’s stated goals, and may even block their implementation for an extended period of time. Last month, it took him just eight days to condone an anti-Israel resolution at the UN Security Council, pass sweeping conservationist ukases, and start a major crisis with Russia. More surprises may come before January 20.
The real thing will start, however, when Obama leaves the White House. His personal popularity is currently above the 50% line. He is just 55 and can be active, as a writer, a lecturer, or an NGO icon, for at least twenty years. His wife Michelle is only 52 and can run as a presidential candidate in 2020. In other words, Obama is fully equipped — especially given the unprecedented level of political polarization that plagues America today — to wage a moral war of attrition against Trump just as Mitterrand did against Chirac.
Of course, such tactics can work only if the conservative winner is a weak and inconsistent man, or looks like one. That was the case, retrospectively, with Chirac. And Trump is a different case altogether.
But then, a second French scenario is to be considered: instead of attrition, self-destruction. Here, Nicolas Sarkozy’s sad story comes to mind.
Sarkozy was elected president of France in 2007 by a strong margin (53% of the popular vote) as a charismatic conservative reformer. Moreover, his party — then known as UMP — won 313 seats out of 577 at the National Assembly in the ensuing parliamentary elections. He thus held all the cards.
Alas, he squandered all of them.
Instead of concentrating on the comprehensive reform package he had put forward throughout the presidential and parliamentary campaigns, and getting it passed at the Assembly during his first hundred days or so in tenure, he embarked on a succession of ill-conceived and unconvincing micro-decisions. Instead of letting his conservative prime minister, François Fillon, carry the bulk of everyday affairs, and thus be spared in case of mistakes, he insisted on being the one and only government manager, and thus all criticism landed on him.
Even more disastrously, he relinquished whole parts of his platform, including on the key issue of national identity. He systematically preferred personalities with a liberal, left-wing or immigrant background as senior members of cabinet over bonafide conservatives.
Among conservative voters — a sociological majority in France since the 1980s — the sense of betrayal was intense and lasting. Many National Front supporters who had repatriated to the classic Right in 2007 returned to the far right in 2012, thus depriving Sarkozy of a second term, even against such a ridiculous socialist contender as François Hollande. Four years later, Sarkozy was crushed in the 2016 conservative primaries by François Fillon, the prime minister he had so thoroughly humiliated.
One may surmise that Trump will avoid the Sarkozy trap as well as the Chirac pitfall. He certainly realizes that he was elected by people who believe in him and expect him to keep his promises to them. He certainly understands that if he does not deliver, the disappointment he will face will be as strong as the support he had generated. Indeed, being a president is not the same as being a candidate, and a president must be more inclusive than a candidate.
But a president should never forget that what is expected from him as a president, even by the people who did not vote for him, is to actually implement much or most of his platform.