"Après moi, le déluge!" - After me, the deluge. So said French king Louis XV, and was he ever right. His successor faced the French Revolution and lost his head.
Much the same can be said of France's outgoing president, Nicholas Sarkozy. The victory of his Socialist rival François Hollande in last week's presidential election not only eclipsed the political career of the widely unloved Sarkozy, it left his clumsily-named political party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), facing its own deluge.
As Europe's conservatives watch in dismay and even horror, the second big shoe is about to drop in French politics. Far-rightist Marine Le Pen appears set to emerge triumphant from the wreckage of France's defeated center-right. France holds two-round elections for its lower house, the National Assembly, on June 10 and 17. Polls show Hollande's Socialists and their left-wing allies winning some 44% of the seats; the center-right UMP, 36.5%. The Left already controls the upper house, the Senate.
Control of both houses would allow Hollande's Socialists to implement their vow to impose punitive taxes on the wealthy, hire 60,000 teachers (all Socialist stalwarts, of course), reject the EU austerity pact, boost spending and return the minimum retirement age to 60 from 62.
Meanwhile, the UMP faces questions of life and death. The party was cobbled together from four center-right parties made up of Gaullists, Liberal Gaullists, Liberal Radicals and Christian Conservatives.
Sarkozy, made giddy by the pomp and power of the royal presidency created for Charles de Gaulle, long neglected party affairs, choosing to run France like Louis XV. As a result, the party became a squabbling collection of egos without any core philosophy or direction.
The June election could inflict the coup de grâce on the floundering UMP. Not only could it be swamped by the Socialists, it must face a Faustian existential choice.
France's electoral laws mirror the complex nature of its people. Nothing is simple or straightforward. Assembly elections will be a three-way race between Socialists, UMP and Le Pen's far-right National Front. With the Socialists holding a strong lead, UMP and National Front risk splitting the center-right vote. So electoral logic demands that they collaborate in many voting districts and agree to support a common candidate.
But the National Front -- xenophobic, racist, violently anti-Muslim and anti-Europe -- is poison to moderate French and many members of the UMP. To no surprise, UMP may split, or disintegrate, over the issue of joining forces with the National Front, seen by many French as a reborn fascist movement. In fact, it's not really fascist, but an avatar of the old 1940 far-right, ultra-conservative, ultra-Catholic movement.
National Front leader Marine Le Pen is clearly calculating that June elections will see the UMP crushed. This, in turn, may lead to massive defections of former UMP deputies to the National Front. Meaning that the National Front could become France's official opposition to the ruling Socialists.
Talk about déjà vu. Such a sweeping change would return France to its pre-war political landscape, when hard Left and hard Right were locked in bitter confrontation. Marine Le Pen could well emerge as the angry voice of many Europeans -- a prospect that causes shudders across conservative-ruled Europe. She could also prove the nemesis of the European Union. Le Pen has vowed to oppose austerity pacts, quit the Euro, restore the franc and follow economic mercantilism. Her anti-EU, anti-free trade policies are attracting many people across Europe and even in Russia.
Fortunately, François Hollande could prove a counter-balance to the ascendant Right. He is a moderate, cautious, centrist politician given to pragmatism rather than ideology. His popularity and image of geniality and caring about people will help him withstand the forces of both Left and Right trying to pull him in different directions.
Even so, Marine Le Pen and her aggressive rightists are likely to become an ever-increasing threat to the French Republic as economic conditions worsen. It seems only a matter of time before ultra-conservatism rears its head again in Spain, Italy and Portugal. Greece is already on the way. Failure to implement austerity plans will bring economic convulsions and with them the bullies.