Let me explain: I was born and raised in Paris, France and on the eve of the 2016 US presidential election, I moved with my family to the state of South Georgia for CNN International .
We were still unpacking our suitcases on election night when the polls sent then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump to the White House. And I had barely got behind the anchor desk when Trump spoke of “American carnage” in his inaugural address, setting the tone for his presidency.
In the years that followed, I had a front row seat as Trump took a wrecking ball to presidential standards. As I watched the endless presidential transgressions, relentless media coverage, and bitterness on both sides of the political divide, it started to feel… familiar.
It reminded me of France a decade earlier, where then French President Nicolas Sarkozy reveled in praising liberals, making headlines and borrowing from the lexicon of the extreme. right.
Sarkozy even tried to pump the brakes halfway through his presidency. After a rout in the regional elections and waning popularity, he softened his tone – to “become presidential” as the French press described him. More in control, less erratic, less confrontational. “We need authenticity, not histrionics. I have to be minimalist, ”Sarkozy told French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, a year before his candidacy for re-election.
But it was too late. And this is where the parallels matter most: after the presidency at a million kilometers an hour from Sarkozy, France – like America now – was running on steam. The country was exhausted. For many voters, raging passions, acrimony, national introspection had not been lasting.
And Sarkozy’s raucous re-election campaign, like Trump’s today, did nothing to suggest that a second term might offer something different. When your brand is firebrand, it’s hard to slow down. On all his signature issues, Sarkozy leaned: bare appeals to the extreme right, a commitment to halve the immigration flow because there were “too many foreigners in our country”, attacks on the media and diatribes against vague “intermediary bodies” hamper the work of his government.
His base loved it but it wasn’t enough.
In 2012, Sarkozy lost to the socialist candidate François Hollande, an opponent so devoid of charisma that he obtained the nickname “Mr. Normal”. Critics’ nicknames for him included “Flanby,” a gelatinous caramel desert for kids, and “Culbuto,” a tumbler that rolls all over the place.
The truth is that Nicolas Sarkozy fought. He was his worst enemy. His approval rate reached 36% a month before the election according to the IFOP polling institute, the worst ever recorded for a holder at the time. His disapproval rate also set a record, at 64%.
Hollande only had to ride the wave of anger against the holder. And that’s what he did: Asked during the French presidential debate on the type of president he would be, Hollande spent half of his three minutes detailing what he would not be: an anti-manifesto. Sarkozy, widely regarded as the moment for signing the debate. Four days later, he was the elected president.
This is where France’s lesson lies: after years of saturating the media, breaking cultural and political taboos, there comes a point when the policy of transgression stops working. Voters, after a while, heard too much. And they are hungry for “Mr. Normal”.