PARIS - Before the second round of France's regional elections on Sunday, most predictions suggested that five, perhaps six, of the country's regional governments would fall into the hands of the National Front (FN). But the French people pulled themselves together and turned out to vote in much greater numbers than anyone expected. The result is that a xenophobic, racist party, one hostile to everything essential to the spirit and greatness of France, was defeated in all of the contests that it was supposed to win.
Some will express surprise at this strange country, which is never so great as when it is on the edge of a cliff. They will worry - and they are right to worry - that a situation of extreme peril, a veritable threat to the nation, was required before the French recovered their senses and took the path of reason. And they will regret that the French are not the prosaic sort of people who know how to be themselves at normal cruising speed, without first having to hear a cannonball whistle past. But that is how it is.
And I, like many others, will not try to hide my satisfaction at seeing the smug scoundrels of the FN break down and resume speaking in their historic register, in their authentic voice, which is one of hatred and mob rage. This, truly, was a victory for the republic - a triumph of popular resistance.
The French turned out, en masse, to say that they did not want to see the Le Pen gang take possession of their regions. That is the most important lesson from Sunday's vote, and it is a reassuring one. But what caused the nation to right itself?
Obviously, nothing happened between the elections' first and second rounds that addressed the so-called "malaise" of the French people. Nor was any particular promise made in response to the "hard questions" raised by FN voters just a week earlier.
No. What we saw, instead, was a moral surge among the French - an act of self-defense by the body politic.
Between the two rounds, the following simple idea sank in among the electorate: The FN can revamp its façade all it wants, but it has never been, is not, and can never be a normal party. For how long have France's moral and political authorities been telling us that "stigmatization" of the FN doesn't work, that it strengthens the party instead of weakening it? Well, that was wrong 20 years ago, and it is still wrong.
It cannot be repeated often enough that when the moral left and right have been strong, when groups like SOS Racisme set boundaries that are bright and clear, the FN has been contained electorally. But when those boundary lines are blurred, when the dikes crumble and the antiracist watchdogs let themselves be intimidated or lower their guard, the FN tries to make itself at home.
The same is true today. The happy surprise of the regional vote owes absolutely nothing to accommodations with the FN by major parties that supposedly "heard the message" of "angry" voters (rhetoric that they relentlessly drummed into us). On the contrary, a sufficient number of voters came to understand that in that very anger - in its spokespeople and in the words used to express it - lurked a threat to the republic, to democracy, and to the nation's fundamental values. That is the second lesson.
What awaits us down the road? How can we be sure that the FN wave, having receded, will not regain strength and break with even greater destructive force in the 2017 presidential election?
Better "unemployment figures" will be required, no doubt. Faster "growth," certainly. We will also need "efforts" and "gestures" directed toward the one-third of French people under 30 and the nearly one-half of industrial and service workers who are said to have expressed their "frustration" and "anxiety" by voting for the FN. Fine. But none of that will ever be a substitute for leaders taking the moral high ground and restoring to our public discourse its lost luster.
No strategy will work if it is implemented by mediocrities who, in a political comedy as dishonorable as it is vain, rush to the television studios to declare, hand over heart, that they have heard the voters "loud and clear." The key will be for French leaders to say - as loudly as possible and as often as necessary - that there is no answer to the "hard questions" as the FN poses them. And, like it or not, it must be said not only to the FN's leaders, but also to its voters.
There have been other times in France's history when entire segments of the electorate have ejected themselves from the game, without the rest of the players rushing over to beg them to get back on the field. Georges Clémenceau, Jean Jaurès, and Raymond Poincaré, at the outset of the twentieth century, did not pander to the nearly half of the electorate that, during and after the Dreyfus Affair, exiled themselves from the republic.
Nor did Charles de Gaulle have any qualms about telling the proponents of French Algeria that, in the end, he did not understand them. Nor did Pierre Mendès in the 1950s hesitate to tell the Communists that he didn't want their votes to support his government.
France must now recall these great moments in its republican tradition and hold them up as a model for today's leaders. For what will be needed to hold the territory that the republic nearly lost to the FN is political courage of a sort that, for the moment, is in short supply.