Last Monday, on the afternoon following the first round of the French Presidential election, the Paris daily Le Monde ran a cartoon of the National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen piloting a small airplane toward two towers that were identified as the current President, Jacques Chirac, and the current Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. That image may strike New Yorkers as excessive, but it shows how it must have felt if you were there. What has happened in France is both less significant and more frightening than a lot of people like to think. It is less significant because Le Pen's "victory," his finishing second, ahead of Jospin—with seventeen per cent of the vote, in a field of more than a dozen candidates—and taking his place, with Chirac, as one of the two candidates on the ballot in the second round, is largely a freak result of a Presidential voting system worse even than our own. If George Bush and Al Gore and Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot and Jesse Jackson and John McCain and Pat Robertson and your uncle Mo all ran on a single ballot on a single day, with the top two finishers advancing to a runoff, weird things would happen here, too. Weird things do happen here. Witness Perot in early '92 and Buchanan in early '96, when they were beneficiaries of the same factors that put Le Pen in second place last week: a mixture of what-the-hellism and genuine discontent. The constitution of the Fifth Republic was hand-tailored, in 1958, for one man, Charles de Gaulle, who wanted a Presidential election with a cutthroat charisma contest, in which the winner assumed absolute monarchical powers, and politics was dislodged from petty party loyalties. Ever since de Gaulle went away, French Presidents have been wearing the same constitutional suit, and ever more uneasily. Sooner or later, it was bound to fall around the ankles of the system.
Still, there is no far-right Vichyite renaissance in France, no Pieds Noirs uprising, nor, really, is there any antiSemitic rampage. (Le Pen is spasmodically anti-Semitic but systematically anti-immigrant; i.e., anti-Arab.) The problem is not that the cancer has grown; Le Pen's vote is about the same size as it was last time, but a lower turnout made it bulk larger. The problem is that the disease has not receded. The situation is scarier than anyone wants to say, simply because if, by some hideous mischance, or some strange perversity of purpose—and perversities of purpose are not unknown in France—Le Pen were to be elected President in the second round of voting, next week, France would undergo a revolution of one kind or another, and the Fifth Republic would come to an end. Left and right alike, the technocratic and meritocratic élite that actually governs France (and whose existence is at once a key cause of the protest vote and an enduring source of the country's pride) would not permit a National Front government. What it would do is hard to say—France has a long history of constitutional coups, like the one that brought de Gaulle himself to power in 1958—but it's a safe bet that Jean-Marie Le Pen can never peacefully become President of the French Republic. At stake next week, then, is not the fate of this or that French politician; it is the stability of Europe.
The hope remains, though, that the majority of French voters stand somewhere in the decent middle ground. For it was frivolity, as much as conviction, that led to this result. A companion to Le Pen's seventeen per cent was the showing of Arlette Laguiller, a Trotskyite, who received nearly six per cent of the vote—the three Trotskyite candidates together won nearly eleven per cent—along with an essentially sympathetic press. Arlette, as she is always called, has been around since the seventies, and her appeal is said to be the sincerity of her beliefs—though, if she sincerely believes anything, it is that the best path forward for France lies in reproducing the condition of the Soviet Union in 1924. Not one Laguiller voter in ten actually agrees with this, but her supporters prefer the lucidity of her position, ludicrous as it is, to the temporizing of others'.
This persistence of extremes in France is in part a tribute to the national love of the uncompromised position. (It was not an accident that, on Election Night, Le Pen appealed to the lucidity of the French, as one might appeal to the common sense of the British, or to the patriotism of the Americans.) Anyone who had friends on the left in France was astonished to hear how many of them were prepared to abandon Jospin, despite his more than credible record, simply because he seemed too gray and wishy-washy. Jospin didn't want to say exactly what he had accomplished at the center, for fear of being blamed for it by the left, and he didn't want to declare his emotional allegiance to the left, for fear of being disowned by the center.
The intellectual classes, who matter in France as they do nowhere else in Europe, share some responsibility for encouraging the kind of self-indulgent utopianism that deprecates even successful parliamentary politics as empty and distasteful. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who died this year, was considered the country's premier intellectual. He wrote extensively and brilliantly about class and taste, and emerged, after a general strike in 1995, as the "master thinker" of the left. His thought evolved, but he was unwavering in his belief that the workings of procedural, parliamentary democracy were at best an illusion, at worst a scam. It used to be said that for evil to triumph it was necessary only for good men to do nothing; in France, historically, for evil to enter it is necessary for good men to tell other good men that nothing is the best thing a good man can do. As the French are now being reminded, it is better to muddle through with your pants around your ankles than to die lucidly with your nose in the air.