Nowhere is the crisis of modernity felt more acutely than in France where for a quarter-century now globalisation has brought moroseness and mistrust on an epic scale. Uneasy with capitalism, uncomfortable with flexibility, un-persuaded by the so-called Anglo-Saxon model, France has retreated into its rancour. Immigrants and openness have constituted threat more than possibility.
Even its glorious cuisine seems somehow static, too heavy for its times, unable to adapt, short on Spanish inventiveness, locked in the past. Its beverages, the best in the world by some distance, have proved short on narrative, that core ingredient of modern marketing.
Its world-class private companies get swept beneath the relentless wave of functionaries' complaints. Its president, once the near regal embodiment of French glory, is now an everyday sort of figure, battling the banal.
Rien ne va plus, say the French, or nothing works anymore. But the English rendering is anemic — stripped of a fathomless Gallic grumpiness that is the expression of a strange sense of defeat. Of course it is not true. A lot works very well in France. But the nation is dyspeptic. The glass is always half-empty. Such bile must find political expression. It has in the rightist, anti-immigrant National Front of Marine Le Pen, victorious in European Parliament elections, her gaze now set on a greater prize: the Élysée Palace.
Make no mistake, she could become president. The National Front has surged before, notably in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the incumbent's father, reached the runoff stage of the presidential election. But in the dozen years since then the European and French crises have deepened.
France has near zero growth and growing unemployment. With an estimated 25 per cent of the European Parliament vote, the National Front crushed both the governing Socialists (14 per cent) and the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (20.8 per cent).
"An earthquake," was the verdict of the Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls. He is not wrong. A two-party system is now a three-party system. Marine Le Pen, subtler and cleverer and more ambitious than her father, is electable. She is plausible.
Elsewhere on the Continent the anger behind the National Front's surge was also evident (no election is better suited for letting off steam than the European because the real power of the European Parliament is limited).
In Britain, Austria and Denmark, more than 15 per cent of the vote went to similar anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-establishment, anti-boredom political movements. But it is in France, which constitutes with Germany the core of the European Union, that a European, economic and psychological crisis has assumed its most acute form. According to the French daily Le Monde, the National Front took 43 per cent of workers' votes and 37 per cent of the vote of the unemployed. Popular sentiment in France has turned against a Europe associated with austerity, stagnation, unemployment and high immigration.
Le Pen's promise of a more nationalist and anti-immigrant France, rejecting European integration and America, has appeal to the disenchanted. A promised Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, with Putin and his "family values" as Europe's salvation, masks a void of economic ideas.
The crisis in France goes far deeper than its immediate economic challenges. For a nation defeated in World War II, but allowed through de Gaulle to claim a sort of victory in the shirttails of the Allies, the European Union was the way out of a strange humiliation. (It was also salvation for Germany, but that is a different story).
Europe was a bold idea, a counterbalance to the United States, a vehicle for a new form of national ambition that was significantly French in genesis. A medium-sized power, much diminished, France could yet dream through Europe. It could opine. It could even change the world. Then along came that great surprise, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. France preferred two Germanys; suddenly it faced one. It wanted to deepen Europe; suddenly it had to widen it. It wanted to be sure of a united Germany's fealty to Europe and a single currency seemed the surest guarantee; suddenly it was bound to the euro just as momentum toward European political integration evaporated.
It wanted to be a counterweight to Washington; suddenly that ambition became risible. It wanted at least to offer a counter model to hyper capitalism; not so suddenly its economic system, for all its virtues, just looked tired, like those French villages drained of youth and vitality.
History can play cruel tricks. This past quarter-century it has played several on France. Of course, Marine Le Pen cannot turn back the clock. But that will not stop angry people from dreaming. Perhaps France will win the World Cup and all will be well for a moment. But that too, alas, is no doubt a dream.
The New York Times News Service