A tale of two presidents

4 May 2012

The American Revolution was won through French fire-power; the revolutionaries of Paris took inspiration from Boston and Philadelphia. Now, as two hundred years ago, it seems the two republics are following a strikingly similar course. In both, an unpopular incumbent, elected on a promise of far-reaching change, is now vilified, often by attacks that are more personal than political. And on either side of the Atlantic the President is faced with a managerial, even uninspiring opponent who has overcome ideological firebrands.

Presidents Obama and Sarkozy both seemed full of promise upon their election. Both were young and energetic. Both promised change: Sarkozy from the drudgery of statism which had pushed up French deficits for decades; Obama from the warmongering, seemingly uncaring Bush administration. Yet both were soon tarnished. Some leftist Parisians took instant exception to the fact that their President holidayed on tycoon’s yachts, while some Americans were less than pleased to have a black man as their head of state. Energetic politicians may inspire their supporters, but they also energise their opponents, and soon flagship reforms such as Sarkozy’s increase in the pension age or Obama’s healthcare laws produced a furious backlash, made worse by the economic doldrums which afflicted both countries. It might have been expected that these polarised, revved-up oppositions would produce challenger’s extreme enough to represent the displeasure with their respective Presidents. But for the most, they have not.

From the outset of the Republican race the clear favourite was moderate, methodical Mitt Romney. As a centrist governor of a liberal state, Romney was never the candidate to enthuse the Tea Party and others on the hard right, and this produced a series of flash in the pan contenders with better extremist credentials: Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, etc, etc. Yet one by one these candidates fell away, to leave Romney now the presumptive nominee. The French Left had seemed perhaps more reserved in their choice of candidate; during the Socialists’ selection process the only serious candidate aside from the uninspiring Hollande was the solidly establishment Dominique Strauss-Kahn, before his candidacy was derailed. However, Jean-Luc Melenchon, backed by the Communist Party, emerged during the campaign as a serious competitor, holding down Hollande’s opinion poll numbers and threatening to soar to a triumphant third place. Yet in the end he faded away to a rather distance fourth. A big chunk of the vote did, however, go to Marine Le Pen, the standard bearer of the far-right Front National – not a direct competitor to Hollande, but indicative that the growth of the hard right in hard times is not just an American peculiarity.

There remains one major difference: whereas President Sarkozy is now fighting for his political life, the American election still seems to be Obama’s to lose. To some extent this comes down to the differences in the candidates. President Sarkozy’s flashy, unorthodox approach to the Presidency has left many who might be inclined to vote for a centre-right candidate unimpressed, while, however unpopular some of his policies may be, President Obama has unquestionably treated his office with traditional dignity. Additionally, the American left is not like the French right. Obama, like Hollande and Romney, can be confident that voters on his side of the political divide who have been disappointed by the last four years will still prefer him to his opponent. The same is not true in France, because the Front National is not just a fierier version of Sarkozy’s UMP, but a distinct quasi-fascist party. President Sarkozy is counting on the votes of their supporters, but they may well not consider him the lesser of the two evils now on offer.

The campaign for the White House remains in its early days though For now Romney seems to be running level with President Obama – and with an unwelcoming economic outlook and months of tit-for-tat attacks ahead of him, Obama may be worried that by November the anti-incumbent winds now shaking France will have blown across the ocean in full force.

James Mottram is a second year English student at Selwyn