Let me explain: I was born and raised in Paris, France and on the eve of the 2016 US presidential election, I relocated with my family to the southern state of Georgia for CNN International.
In the years that followed, I had a front row seat as Trump took a wrecking ball to presidential norms. As I watched the endless presidential transgressions, unrelenting media coverage, and bitterness on both sides of the political divide, it started to feel… familiar.
To say the norms of presidential behavior were broken during his first term would be an understatement. Highlights of Sarkozy’s colorful conduct as president include him telling a hostile bystander, “get lost, asshole!” and egging a heckling fisherman to “come down and say it!” His post-election holiday on the private yacht of a French billionaire — a no-no in French politics — was never quite forgiven. And his controversial push to strip French nationality from foreign-born citizens who committed grave crimes never made it past parliament.
But it was too late. And this is where the parallels matter most: After Sarkozy’s million-miles-an-hour presidency, France — like America now — was running on fumes. The country was exhausted. For many voters, the passions unleashed, the acrimony, the national soul-searching hadn’t been sustainable.
And Sarkozy’s raucous re-election campaign, like Trump’s today, did nothing to suggest 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 in: Naked appeals to the far-right, a pledge to halve the flow of immigration because there were “too many foreigners in our country,” attacks on the media and diatribes against vague “intermediary bodies” impeding his government’s work.
His base loved it but it wasn’t enough.
Hollande had only to ride the wave of anger against the incumbent. And that’s what he did: Asked during the French presidential debate what kind of president he would be, Hollande spent half of his three minutes detailing what he wouldn’t be: An anti-Sarkozy manifesto, widely considered the signature moment of the debate. Four days later, he was the president-elect.
Therein lies the lesson from France: After years of saturating the media, breaking cultural and political taboos, there comes a point when the politics of transgression stop working. Voters, after a while, have heard too much. And they hunger for “Mr. Normal.”