Lessons for Romney and Obama from the French Election

Americans don’t pay much attention to overseas elections and we don’t think we have much to learn from other countries– especially France.

But I believe our two presidential candidates can draw some lessons from the results of Sunday’s second round of the French presidential elections.

The victory of Socialist François Hollande over President Nicolas Sarkozy was narrower than many polls had suggested. But he ran a very good campaign and the incumbent didn’t. And he responded to some important changes in the public’s mood on issues of austerity and growth.

Newly elected French President Francois Hollande in Tulle greeting supporters after his election victory. Photo: Jean-Claude Coutasse for Le Monde.

So, here are some lessons President Obama and likely Republican challenger Mitt Romney should learn.

For President Obama, incumbency ain’t what it used to be. Ten European leaders have been ousted by voters since the financial crisis began. Voters are blaming incumbents for unemployment, fiscal crises, the euro zone’s problems, what have you. In fact, the crisis is much bigger than any leader of any single country can tackle effectively, and its after-effects will linger for years. But for now, voters may prefer to shake things up and take a chance on someone new.

Also for President Obama, maybe he needs to talk more about the economy. France is performing relatively well in Europe, and President Sarkozy’s policies have helped the euro zone avert catastrophe. But Sarkozy didn’t push the economic argument much in his campaign, maybe because his advisers said it was too difficult a case to make.

Still, the US is doing much better than most large developed countries are. GDP is growing a lot faster,   manufacturing and production have rebounded strongly, and the private sector has added jobs for 26 consecutive months—more than 4 million new jobs in all.  US total unemployment remains high, but it’s certainly a lot better than it was. How responsible is the Obama administration for this? Probably not much, but if he’s going to get the blame for a weak economy, why shouldn’t he take at least some credit for an improving one?

Defeated French President Nicolas Sarkozy in London. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Downing Street

For Mitt Romney, likeability may be a bigger factor than he thinks it is. Even if President Sarkozy had tried to make the economic argument, French voters are simply tired of his abrasive personality and hyperkinetic leadership style.  Hollande really hit home with his headline quote at Wednesday night’s presidential debate:  “You are incapable of making an argument without being unpleasant.” President Obama easily tops Romney in likeability with voters, and it won’t be easy for the challenger to narrow the gap. But he has to try.

Here’s the most important lesson for Romney: Don’t pander too much to the GOP’s extreme right. Sarkozy, who has been tough on immigrants his whole career, used even harsher language in the last two weeks to appeal to the far-right National Front voters, who gave Marine Le Pen a surprising 18% of the vote in the first round.  But that turned off centrist voters, whose favorite candidate, François Bayrou, backed Hollande, saying Sarkozy had become “obsessed” with immigration.

Romney’s efforts to pander to anti-immigration Republican voters is the obvious parallel here. He also has embraced Tea Party tax-cutting fetishism and neoconservative foreign policy, both discredited philosophies of the Bush years. And he has caved to the Christian right’s retrograde social policies towards gays and women. That will hurt him among young voters, Hispanics, and  suburban women, all key constituencies.

So, in a nutshell, the French election should teach President Obama to mount a defense of his economic record and Mitt Romney to pick one far-right constituency and slap it upside the head. That’s how each of them can show the kind of leadership voters will reward.

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