France Front National: From 'untouchables' to EU force
It is hard to overstate the momentousness of what has just happened in France.
A party that just two or three years ago was regarded as not just contemptible, but untouchable, has won a national election.
Today the Front National (FN) really is - as the posters rushed out at party HQ put it - the biggest force in the land.
Up until Marine Le Pen's take-over in 2011, the party was effectively under an establishment banning order.
The media and the other parties decided that to talk about, let alone talk to, the FN was to give the "oxygen of publicity" to its noxious ideas.
Racism and hatred of the other were decreed to be the FN's defining characteristics, even as in fact the euro and free-market economics became its principal butts - and even as every other party across Europe agreed immigration to be a major issue.
In national affairs the FN was kept to the margins by a voting system that ensured it got minimal access to power.
Today - after the huge advances made under Le Pen fille - the party has just two members of parliament and a handful of town halls.
That is 0.34% of the national legislature for a party that today can claim fully a quarter of the country's votes!
And yet all the while it has been this very isolation - its enforced incapacity - that has been the FN's greatest strength.
The party articulates the despair of a country in decline. It offers solutions built on a return to simpler times. It makes believe that sovereign control of borders and currency and tariffs is the key to hope and prosperity.
None of this has ever been tested.
As long as the party remained shouting from the sidelines, then voters would join in.
Why wouldn't they? The slogans were good, and fun to chant. Politicians were incompetent and corrupt. The promises of Sarkozy and Hollande had all proved equally hollow. They deserved it.
But what has happened with this extraordinary election result is that the FN has taken a large stride in the direction of responsibility.
Today - unbelievably - it has the largest number of French MEPs. In a legislative body that is an integral part of the European system of government, the FN - the historic pariah - is stronger than both the Gaullists and the Socialists.
What this means is that from now on it will be quite unacceptable for the French establishment to ignore the FN, and to pretend that its ideas do not matter.
For the mainstream parties to treat this victory as they have all other FN advances - as an irritating aberration to be countered with routine shouts of 'Racist!" - would be an act of monumental stupidity and arrogance.
Democracy is meaningless if its unwanted results are ignored.
But by the same token, if the Front National is to be any more than a purveyor of side-line yah-boos then it too faces a daunting challenge.
It too has made promises. It too has said it can make a difference to people's lives. It too will now be sending its score of legislators to the fleshpots of Strasbourg.
For a time the FN can continue to play on its isolation. Even now in the EU parliament, it and its allies will remain a minority force. And in France its powers are necessarily curtailed.
But change is coming. The perennial outsider is joining the mainstream. It may find life there less easy than it thought.
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