Jean-Marie Le Pen's breakthrough in the French presidential elections is a slap in the face for mainstream French political parties, as well as a stark warning of the drawbacks of the constitution of the Fifth French Republic. But the lessons of Le Pen's rise go beyond the specifics of French politics, because far-right parties have been on the march in many European countries of late, from Austria to Portugal, from Italy to Denmark.
The questions we must ask are, first, whether this upsurge of far-right, anti-immigrant, law-and-order parties is part of an evolving crisis in Europe's traditional model of parliamentary democracy; and second, whether it represents the precursor of a major crisis about the future of the European Union. I believe the answer to both questions to be yes.
On the surface, the crisis in France may seem short-lived. All mainstream parties are rallying round Jacques Chirac to keep out Monsieur Le Pen. In the second round of voting, Chirac will undoubtedly defeat Le Pen, possibly with a record majority.
But the figures from the first round tell a different story. Chirac got less than 20% of the vote; Chirac, Le Pen, and the socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, got little more than 50% between them, and an unusually large number of voters stayed home. In short, France does not want any of these people to be President, and Chirac's large eventual victory will not correspond to any large degree of legitimacy.