Europe / France

France, America, and the Politics of Character

Just after the third presidential debate, I called my grandfather, curious about his reaction to President-elect Donald Trump’s victory. As I typed Paris’s area code into my phone, my grandfather’s voice echoed in my head. I pictured the ultra-conservative 72-year-old yelling “crooked Hillary!” in his thick French accent as though he coined the saying. I heard him praising Trump for heroically defeating Clinton in the last presidential debate.

But when my grandfather finally picked up the line, I was greeted by a voice eerily similar to those of the Bowdoin students with whom I watched the debate. My grandfather chastised Trump for failing to put forth a comprehensive plan for dealing with the Middle East, criticized the nebulous state of his tax returns, and most passionately, condemned Trump’s rude, flashy, erratic rhetoric.

In order to understand this peculiar shift in my grandfather’s point of view, it is critical to first understand the French party system. The system is made up of three parties: the socialist party, the center-right party (“Les Republicains”), and the hyper-conservative party, the National Front.

Unsurprisingly, the French socialist party has been quick to denounce Trump. Francois Hollande, the French president and one of the more vocal members of the French socialist party, warned, “If the Americans choose Trump, it will have consequences because the American election is a global election.” He later elaborated on his distaste for Trump, stating that Trump’s wealth made him want to “retch.”

As one might expect, the National Front has endorsed Trump. Marine Le Pen, the nominee for the National Front party in the upcoming election, has been one of the more outspoken supporters of Trump. Earlier this year, she mused that he “appeals to Americans because he is a free man, not beholden to Wall Street, markets or financial lobbies, or even his own party.” Furthermore, on immigration, she emphasized, “Whatever the European Union might say, it is essential that France recover its borders, once and for all.”

Alain Juppé, a former French prime minister and a nominee for France’s center-right party, has openly denounced Trump on multiple occasions. In a preliminary press conference for the French election, he stated, “His total ignorance for Europe, his disdain for France, his isolationist and protectionist points of view, his outrageous simplifications, his constant changes of tack, are a real concern.”

Some may discount Juppé, assuming that he is a trivial character in French politics. But according to an Odoxa poll, he is predicted to edge Sarkozy out of the nomination for the French Republican Party by seventeen points. Juppé’s denunciation of Trump could be likened to a scenario in which Paul Ryan, instead of simply stating that he was “going to spend the next month focused entirely on protecting our congressional majorities” directly barraged Trump’s unsubstantiated arguments and lack of experience.

Even so, Juppé’s denunciation of Trump could be explained by a political motive, rather than a larger trend in French political standpoints. For instance, Juppé is running against Sarkozy, one of the traditionally flashier candidates who at times has much in common with Trump. Thus, some have speculated that Juppé speaks out against Trump in order to distance himself from Sarkozy, instead of showing his strong distaste for the American president-elect.

Because of Juppé’s potential ulterior motive, it is important to analyze the French population’s view of Trump. In a recent poll conducted by L’Europe 1, the French people looked upon former President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine more favorably than they do Trump. Furthermore, only eleven percent of the French population holds a positive opinion of Trump, compared to the forty-seven percent of Americans that voted for him.

Considering Le Pen provides insight into the basis of this difference. As stated earlier, she shares with Trump essentially the same views on immigration, the Middle East, and economic models. A YouGov survey reported that the French population finds her more similar to Trump than the other French candidates. But instead of rejecting Le Pen as they did Trump, the French people have rallied around Le Pen. According to a survey published by Le Monde, Le Pen had a decisive seven-point lead in the overall election. A recent Assemblée Nationale poll explained this phenomenon, indicating that the most common reason for the French people’s distaste for Trump is that he is a “fou furieux.” In other words, the French don’t like Trump because he is “aggressive and crazy.”

This reason for discrediting Trump is exemplified in the Sarkozy–Juppé race for the moderate-conservative nomination in which Sarkozy resembles Trump and Juppé mirrors Le Pen. Like Trump and Le Pen, on an ideological basis, Sarkozy and Juppé are very similar. Juppé supports raising the retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-five, and raising the workweek from thirty-five to thirty-nine hours. Although Sarkozy has focussed his campaign on terrorism and forcing Muslims to eat pork, he too supports Juppe’s core plans of expanding France’s productivity.

But they differ in character. Sarkozy had always been the flashier of the two candidates, known as the “bling-bling” president. Furthermore, Sarkozy shares Trump’s fixation with beautiful women, as evidenced by the L’Oreal scandal. Dissimilarly, Juppé has been described as the “anti-Trump” by Politico. He’s seen as old, distant ,and even robotic. In a recent poll, Sarkozy won only thirty-seven percent of the vote, compared to Juppé’s sixty-three. France’s support for Le Pen over Trump and Juppé over Sarkozy shows the French people’s investment in the character of their elected official.

Whether or not America should emulate France’s care for personality is debatable. On one level, this sentiment would reduce the likelihood of electing a racist, sexist, egomaniac like Trump. But France’s example does present the risk of fixation on candidate personalities rather than on political stances. For example, Scientific American conducted a study determining that the French parliamentary election of 2007 was decided largely based on which candidate was “deemed more competent looking.” It came to these conclusions by asking Swiss children to choose the candidates solely based on various pictures of them taken throughout the campaign. Remarkably, the Swiss children chose the correct candidate.

Ultimately, this election, that may as well have been chosen by school children, gave France Francois Hollande. Today, only twelve percent of France, according to a TNS Sofres survey, believes Hollande is successfully leading the country. This is the lowest approval rating for a French president in the past 30 years. The majority of the criticism raised against Hollande is for his inconsistency, most commonly with regards to mending the French economy. Although Francois Fillon, Hollande’s most plausible alternative, would not necessarily have been more decisive, Hollande had previously shown signs of this negative trait. One of the greatest examples came during the debates against Sarkozy. Throughout his political career, Hollande was known as “Monsieur Flanby,” a French pudding, for both his wavering political ideals and soft nature. But in the debates, Hollande abruptly moved toward a more aggressive style. After Sarkozy complained about being called names, Hollande retorted, “You will have trouble passing off as a victim.” Although such a line may seem trivial, it ran contrary to Hollande’s political style, and thus should have risen red flags about Hollande.

The French–American divide over Trump harkens to France’s conscious and subconscious valuation of character. This bias, with regard to people like Hollande, has hurt France in the past. But with figures like Trump, when candidates’ personalities say much about their political views, it is clear that character has a place in politics.

Nevertheless, in pondering the French–American divide, perhaps the solution lies somewhere between character and politics. Candidates like Trump and Hollande could be better addressed by the question “Do the candidates’ tastes and personalities reflect unspoken aspects of their political ideologies?” instead of the prevailing question, which seems to be, “Should I vote based on the candidates’ politics or personalities?”