Trump Must Learn From French Conservatives: Follow Through, or Fail

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.