The comprehensive defeat of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in the second round of the French provincial elections has elicited sighs of relief from across the European press.
But whilst the immediate crisis has eased, the looming shadow of the FN could make it much harder for France’s traditional parties to lift their country out of its present malaise.
Le Pen was only stopped after unprecedented cooperation between Nicholas Sarkozy’s Republicans, the latest party to inherit to mantle of centre-right Gaullism previously held by the UMP, and President Francois Hollande’s Socialists.
In several regions the Socialists actually withdrew from the contest, urging their voters to back the Republican candidate against the Nationalist.
Whilst sufficient to stop the FN taking office, it doesn’t change the fact that the party has substantially widened its support base and looks to be growing into a durable third force in French politics, having tripled its number of local councillors even in the face of this setback.
But if the price of keeping the Front out of power is for the Republicans and Socialists to collude thus – in what Le Pen has denounced as ‘intellectual terrorism’ – then the long-term consequences of this tactical victory could be very troublesome.
After all, what could suit a self-styled outsider better than so obvious an example of establishment collusion?
The constant wailing about ‘LibLabCon’ by some UKIP supporters may have become a running joke during the last election, but Labour weren’t pulling out of seats to block UKIP candidates.
If the major parties don’t manage to set France on an upward trajectory then such tactics risk tainting the centre-right opposition with the failures of the Socialist Government, leaving the Front as the only contender with clean hands.
Being locked together to hold off the FN actually makes this more likely, too.
This is because setting France on a new course is inevitably going to involve a vigorous challenge to much of the French political consensus, of the sort promised – but not delivered – by Sarkozy on his first outing as President.
Yet if he starts charting a radical course and putting some clear blue water between himself and the Socialists, it will make the sort of anti-Nationalists pacts we just witnessed much harder to sustain.
Even of centre-left voters don’t defect in numbers to the FN – which is, like many nationalist parties, well to the left economically – they may refuse to transfer their allegiance to the Republicans to block them.
Both major parties have won themselves some breathing space by boxing out the FN. But if the only way to keep that up is to entrench themselves in a political consensus which is manifestly failing, it could end poorly for them – and for France.