Earthquake. Cataclysm. Electroshock. The 9/11 of French politics. These were the recurring terms that established political leaders of both left and right used to characterize the April 21 presidential elections in France–in which nearly one in five voters cast their lot with the two neofascist parties of the extreme right, and racist National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen edged past Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to become the sole candidate against conservative President Jacques Chirac in the May 5 runoff. How did it happen?

With opinion polls showing throughout the campaign that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the electorate could find no difference between the programs proposed by Chirac and Jospin, the elections represented a stunning rejection of the French political establishment. Roughly a third of the electorate (28.8 percent) abstained–a record in France–or cast blank ballots. Only half of those who did vote supported the governing parties of the traditional left and right. The rest voted for one of the protest candidates in the field of sixteen, including three Trotskyists; a candidate claiming to represent the interests of rural France; an antihomosexual demagogue of the Catholic right; and the two neofascists, Le Pen (who got 16.9 percent) and Bruno Megret (the former Le Pen lieutenant whose tiny MNR Party got 2.35 percent). Thus, two-thirds of the voters rejected the perceived stasis of politics as usual.

It’s important to remember that these elections took place against the backdrop of the ongoing, hydra-headed political corruption scandals making headlines for a decade, which have revealed that all the major parties with the exception of the Greens–the Socialists and Communists as well as the conservatives–were involved in highly organized systems of bribes and kickbacks on the letting of government contracts, with secret corporate contributions, laundered money and Swiss bank accounts.

In this context of massive voter alienation, it is the defeat of the governing left that stands out. Only 195,000 votes separated Le Pen from Jospin, but as Serge July editorialized in Libération, “the left defeated the left.” A bit of history: When the Socialist Jospin–with the support of the Greens, the Communists and two tiny left parties–lost the 1995 presidential runoff to Chirac, he obtained 44 percent of the vote, which represented the maximum strength of the united left. After leading his “plural left” coalition to victory in the 1997 parliamentary elections, Jospin as prime minister dedicated himself to finding the 6 percent of votes he needed to eventually win the presidency by governing to the center-right on economic matters.

Jospin’s austere, technocratic style of governance created legions of the disaffected among “le peuple de gauche” (the left-identified electorate), all the more so when he appeared impotent in the face of industrial plant closings by multinationals with rich profit margins, which threw tens of thousands of workers into the streets. Le Pen, who blames the immigrants for unemployment and high taxes, got twice as many working-class votes as Jospin did this time around, according to exit polls. Jospin, who proclaimed early this year that his was “not a Socialist program,” was further undercut when the two most significant Trotskyist candidates garnered a surprising 10 percent of the vote.

Chirac succeeded in making “insecurity”–the French code-word for crime, blamed largely on immigrants–the central issue of the campaign, and Jospin played into voters’ fears on this issue by repeatedly claiming that Chirac had “copied my program.” Both Chirac and Jospin thus legitimized the central discourse of Le Pen, whose law-and-order immigrant-bashing has long been his staple stock in trade; and, as Le Pen never stopped proclaiming, many voters “prefer the original to the photocopy.” September 11 only heightened fear of the immigrant Arab population, as did the recent wave of violent anti-Semitic incidents by French-Arab delinquents in the wake of the Israeli war in Palestine (303 in March alone). Le Pen’s victory reflected the growing, Continent-wide wave of racism that has led to startling breakthroughs by the xenophobic extreme right, whose parties now participate in the governments of Italy, Denmark, Portugal and Austria.

Although the parties of the French “plural left” lost 1.5 million votes this time compared with their 1995 first round score, the traditional right lost more: 3,846,000. France’s president is relatively powerless, and the real test of political strength will come in the two-stage parliamentary elections on June 9 and 16. The left could well win these elections if the National Front achieves the 12.5 percent district-by-district threshold to stay on the ballot in the second round of voting and divides the conservative vote. The Communists and the Greens have already agreed to join the Socialists in supporting united candidacies of the left in swing districts. Many of those who cast protest votes for the Trotskyists to pressure the “plural left” back to the left will return to the fold and support them. Meanwhile, Chirac has just created a new formation, the Union for a Presidential Majority, to run unified conservative candidates in June–but so far two smaller parties in Chirac’s coalition (they got 10 percent of the vote in the presidential first round) are balking at joining. Whoever wins in June, the incoming government will have to work creatively to heal the social and racial fracture the presidential election revealed–and to stop the racist virus from spreading even further.