What Trump could learn from the fall of France's own fiery 'law and order' president

President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, faces his Socialist Party opponent Francois Hollande, left, during a televised debate in 2012.

(CNN)Americans are on the eve of a momentous political choice this November. But for a jump on how the story goes from here, consider what happened in France, where another "back to normal" candidate challenged a firebrand incumbent.

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.
We were still unpacking our suitcases on election night, when the polls sent then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton home and Republican nominee Donald Trump to the White House. And I had barely gotten behind the anchor desk by the time Trump spoke of "American carnage" in his inaugural address, setting the tone for his presidency.
    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.
    It reminded me of France a decade earlier, where then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy had reveled in incensing liberals, dominating the headlines, and borrowing from the lexicon of the far-right.
    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.
    Of course, he is not Trump. Sarkozy is a conservative career politician who knew the affairs of state inside out. He didn't make a habit of insulting political opponents, promote conspiracy theories, or alienate France's closest allies. And he was chummy with US Democrats: In 2008, he embraced Barack Obama, then a senator vying for the Democratic nomination, in Paris; in 2016, he favored Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
    Sarkozy even tried to pump the brakes midway through his presidency. Following a rout in regional elections and a waning popularity, he softened his tone -- to "presidentialize himself" as the French press described it. More in control, less erratic, less confrontational. "We need authenticity, not histrionics. I must be minimalist," Sarkozy told French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, a year before his reelection bid.