Trump vs. Biden is a rerun of France's 2012 presidential race

By: Rachel Marsden

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- “So, who’s going to win: Trump or Biden?” That question is being asked with increased frequency in casual conversations at backyard barbecues. Polls famously failed to predict the results of the 2016 race between Trump and Hillary Clinton, so political watchers are looking for other signs. They should really be looking to France for an instructive case.

In 2012, incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy faced off against former Socialist Party leader François Hollande. The similarities between Sarkozy and Trump are noteworthy. Like Trump, Sarkozy infused his rhetoric and political philosophies with the free-market ideology traditionally associated with America. (The French often called him “Sarko l’Américain.”)

France initially welcomed Sarkozy’s eagerness to modernize the country. Like Trump, Sarkozy was seen as an outsider. He didn’t attend the elite National Administration School (ENA) of his presidential predecessors, and although he served in government during Jacques Chirac’s presidency, the entire country knew that Sarkozy and Chirac were at odds. Chirac even famously supported his former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, against Sarkozy for the party’s presidential nomination for the 2007 race.

As the interior minister prior to becoming president, Sarkozy was seen as tough on crime (echoing Trump’s current “law and order” rhetoric). During a series of riots in 2005, Sarkozy threatened to clean out a number of migrant-heavy neighborhoods with a pressure washer, referring to some residents as “racaille,” or “trash.” During his presidency, Sarkozy ramped up deportation flights that sent Roma migrants back to Eastern Europe — a move supported by a majority of French voters.

Sarkozy was appealing to the French in the same way that New York City and its energy are initially attractive to tourists. He became known as the hyperactive president. One of his communication officials described Sarkozy’s media strategy to me as: “Action, announcement, repeat.”

At the time, Twitter was in its infancy, so getting headlines meant dragging the media along. But much like Trump’s tweetstorms that garner perpetual media coverage these days, Sarkozy’s communications gave the impression of nonstop movement. It was the presidency that never seemed to sleep — in stark contrast to his predecessor, Chirac, who wouldn’t be seen for days.

Eventually, as with New York City after a couple of weeks, the energy has a draining effect. Just watching Sarkozy became exhausting to the French. And when voters tuned out the rhetoric and announcements and took stock of what Sarkozy had actually accomplished, they weren’t impressed. The French system is notoriously difficult to reform, but voters had higher expectations given all the talk. Into that environment of wanting, exhaustion, aggravation and annoyance, Hollande emerged as a challenger.

Hollande’s vow, even before he won his party’s primary, was that he would be a “normal president” compared to Sarkozy.

“Being a normal president does not mean being an ordinary president, but a president who will restore stability, consistency, constancy, respect and exemplarity in the exercise of his function,” Hollande said in an interview with Jeune Afrique.

That sounds a lot like the way Joe Biden is positioning himself against Trump. And in France, Hollande’s approach worked. Sarkozy and Hollande played their respective roles perfectly in the debates: the hyperactive pugilist vs. Mr. Normal.

Hollande won the election by 3.2 percentage points.

The aftermath was less impressive for Mr. Normal, who spent his presidency undoing Sarkozy’s few successful reforms and left office with an approval rating of less than 20 percent. Unlike Sarkozy, whose presidency flew by in a blur of activity, Hollande’s was more of a sleepwalk, punctuated by several brutal terrorist attacks that served as a wake-up call to French citizens. Hollande decided not to run for re-election. His lackluster term decimated his party and gave rise to a new political movement that swept pragmatic centrist Emmanuel Macron to power in 2017.

Macron seems determined to succeed where his predecessors failed by analyzing and avoiding the mistakes of both Sarkozy on the right and Hollande on the left.

So Hollande’s term will go down in history as little more than palate cleanser for France in the wake of Sarkozy’s presidency — and not just politically. It was only after Hollande took office that the wheels of justice started turning and the French saw criminal charges rain down on Sarkozy, including allegations that he accepted millions of euros in campaign cash from former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, against whom Sarkozy orchestrated a coup d’état with the U.S. and Britain.

It’s now American voters’ turn to decide if they want to end a hyperactive political reality show — the Trump show — and have Lady Justice peek under Trump’s kimono. If so, then “Sleepy Joe Biden,” as Trump calls him, will serve as a catalyst for greater transparency in government, just as Hollande did vis-à-vis Sarkozy. And, as with Hollande, that may end up being Biden’s biggest achievement.