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What Obama Can Learn From Sarkozy's Defeat

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French and American presidential elections happen on the same year as rarely as observations of Halley's Comet, a few times each century. The last instance was 1988, when socialist incumbent president Francois Mitterrand was reelected in France and George H.W. Bush was elected in the U.S.

More than an ocean separates both electoral contests today: a radically different electoral system; a French state that is expected to do everything vs. an American state that is expected to do as little as possible; a president from the right with a docile parliamentary majority in France vs. a president from the left with a hostile parliamentary majority in the U.S. And yet, despite these fundamental differences, some of the lessons from Sunday's defeat of French president Nicolas Sarkozy can be transposed to the American context and worry Barack Obama.

Lesson One: Incumbency is a handicap

Everywhere in Europe, from Greece to the Netherlands, elections have sanctioned incumbents. France was no exception to the rule. Nicolas Sarkozy could not convince a majority of voters that far from being responsible for the country's economic crisis, his policies had avoided its spillover and limited the damage.

To be sure, part of the anti-Sarkozy vote was exactly that: a vote against Sarkozy -- his personality, his behavior, his tone of language. But the majority of the pro-Francois Hollande vote was a manifestation of rejection against the current economic situation and a vote for change hoping, with no illusions, for a better future.

Why would it be different for Obama? Given the role played by money in American electoral politics, incumbency traditionally offers many advantages. The economic situation in the U.S. is timidly improving and presumptive Republican contender Mitt Romney is in many respects a potentially flawed candidate. But given the strong anti-incumbent push felt around the Western world, Obama will need a lot of luck to overcome what has become the handicap of incumbency.

Lesson Two: No one cares about foreign policy successes

In the U.S., Sarkozy became well-known and well-appreciated for his activism and successes in foreign affairs, but foreign policy was completely absent from the French presidential campaign, even though the French reintegrated NATO fully under Sarkozy's tenure and became even more involved in Afghanistan. Why couldn't Sarkozy capitalize on his handling of foreign policy over the past five years?

First, as far as we know given the little debate on the issue, both candidates shared roughly similar visions on foreign affairs. Moreover, it is difficult ex post to define a coherent "Sarkozy doctrine" except for opportunism, hyperactivity, and impulsive reactions to the crisis of the day.

As for Sarkozy's foreign policy successes, many have already been forgotten. Voters have short memories. Who still remembers the liberation of the Bulgarian nurses from Libya in 2007, the handling of the Georgia conflict in summer 2008, or Sarkozy's "invention" of the modern G20 to deal with the American financial crisis in fall 2008? And as time goes by, what was initially cast as successes, such as the Libya intervention, came to be viewed as failures as the election neared.

The real lesson for Obama is that no one cares for foreign policy successes in times of economic crisis -- failures, yes, but successes, no. James Carville was right about "the economy, stupid", and saving General Motors is more important than killing bin Laden in electoral terms.

Lesson Three: The real cleavage today is globalization

Some analysts have interpreted the rather close results (51.7 percent for Hollande, 48.3 percent for Sarkozy) as evidence that France remains fundamentally divided, almost equally, between the Left and the Right. But these results are also evidence that the French could not really choose between the two candidates because the real cleavage that separates voters today is not Left vs. Right but Out vs. In -- what to do about globalization.

In order to win, Sarkozy had to appeal simultaneously to the centrists to his left and the National Front to his right -- which, not surprisingly, he failed in doing. The fact that both parties find themselves on the same side of the Left-Right cleavage, when everything else seems to oppose them, shows that this cleavage is antiquated.

The real ideological difference today is between opening or closing French borders to globalization -- and its European smaller-scale version, the European Union. Should the country project outwards or protect inwards? Is an open economy an opportunity, even if it is accompanied by costs, or is it a threat that needs to be circumscribed ?

The "France du non," which had rejected the 2005 European Constitution, clearly spoke out in the first round of the presidential election and will probably express itself loudly in the de facto third round -- the legislative election to take place in June. These voters want to close the country to retake control over their national and individual destiny -- against immigrants, Eurocrats, international institutions, global financial markets, Chinese workers. Indeed, the sociology of the National Front voters resembles that of the Tea Party, even if the policy prescriptions are radically different.

This may be the lesson most easily transposable to the U.S. context, which is also undergoing an existential crisis. American voters are saying, especially in the Republican primaries, whether they want to be in or out of the global flows of goods, people and ideas. Like in France, this cleavage is not expressed between the main parties but within each of them.

This is why the American presidential campaign, like the French presidential campaign, cannot hinge around these themes because the main candidates have overall similar visions when it comes to the positioning of their country vis-à-vis globalization, but fundamentally different to the ones articulated by their extremes. Instead, the electoral debate can only revolve around domestic political themes, such as taxes and healthcare, and societal issues, such as contraception in the U.S. and the cost of a driver's license in France.