One faction of the old centre-right, including elements of both the Gaullists and the liberal UDF, appeared to be going into permanent alliance with the xenophobic National Front. That could in effect double the electoral influence of the far right from 15 per cent of the vote to as much as 30 per cent overnight.
A centrist or "republican" rump of the two centre-right groups, adamantly refusing all political dealings with Jean-Marie Le Pen's party, would be left to rally as best it could around President Jacques Chirac. One senior centre-right politician predicted yesterday that the upshot would be that the Left would rule France "for the next 50 years".
Following the outright revolt of centre-right leaders in five different regions on Friday - accepting NF support to hold on to regional governments against strict instructions from the national leadership - events continued to spin out of control yesterday. Alain Madelin, a former economics minister, self-professed French Thatcherite and leader of one of the right-wing factions of the UDF, publicly supported the rebels. The UDF alliance, always a troublesome collection of political opinions and personal vanities, had in effect collapsed.
Mr Madelin is expected to try to form a new grouping this week, also embracing Gaullist rebels. Such a grouping would go, almost certainly, into permanent electoral alliance with the National Front. Further rebellions against the anti-NF line are expected in at least three more regions in delayed votes in regional assemblies tomorrow.
The president of the Gaullists, Philippe Seguin, spoke of a "terrible convulsion" on the French right. But he said that the political earthquake, long predicted but always postponed, was "probably necessary" to create a new, healthy centre-right, based on republican and democratic principles. This is the optimistic view but not necessarily a wildly optimistic one: opinion polls suggest that as much as two-thirds of the existing centre- right vote is opposed to deals with the ultra-right.
The pressure for local pacts with the National Front came not so much from the grassroots but from "the little barons" of the UDF and the Gaullists, desperate to hold on to regional power and privileges after their humiliating defeat in parliamentary elections last year.
In the meantime, there is one clear winner: the anti-immigrant, anti- European, anti-American National Front. And within the NF, there is another clear winner: the present Number Two, Bruno Megret, who can now be considered its de facto leader. For years Mr Megret, 48, has advocated a strategy of alliance with elements of the centre-right in order to re-draw the boundaries of French politics and allow the NF to escape the stigma of extremism (though not necessarily the extremist positions). Jean-Marie Le Pen had resisted the strategy, but has progressively yielded to it in recent months.
The extraordinarily rapid collapse last week of the structures of the centre-right, established for more than 20 years, may have exceeded even Mr Megret's wildest imaginings. It will bolster his strength within the NF and establish him definitively as the heir to Mr Le Pen, who is 70 this year.
The rise of Mr Megret may in itself, however, offer France a silver lining. He is no soft, democratic alternative to Mr Le Pen - in private, his views on race, nationalism and cultural tolerance are said to be even more extreme than the older man's. The consolation, if any, is that the Front is also a coalition of disparate groups, from high Catholics to pagan neo-Nazis. It takes the bullying charisma of Mr Le Pen to keep the party together. Mr Megret is hated by many within the NF. With the influence of "le Chef" waning, it may not be easy to control the Front or the putative new alliance with former members of the respectable right.
Much depends on the performance of the French economy and the transition to a single European currency in the next two or three years. There are signs that the French economy is about to boom: if so, support for the new far-right alliance could wane. But if the boom collapses and the abolition of the franc causes economic dislocation, the newly respectable ultra-right might become a powerful vehicle for popular and nationalist discontent.
Who is to blame for the startling events of the past week? The system of proportional representation in the regional elections last Sunday played directly into the NF's hands, leaving regional assemblies split three ways all over France. The leaders of the centre-right have accused Lionel Jospin's Socialist-led coalition of refusing to change the system in a deliberate attempt to explode the right. But it was, in fact, the previous centre-right government of Alain Juppe which first shied away from reform and made the rod for its own back.
In truth, the Gaullist leader, Mr Seguin, is probably right: the convulsion was inevitable at some point. Although the NF has been stuck at 15 per cent of the popular vote for three years now, that is a big enough score to make life electorally very difficult for the centre-right. There has been a striking lack of leadership and new ideas in the Gaullist RPR and the UDF, from President Chirac downwards. It was likely, sooner or later, that the furthest-right, least thoughtful, and least scrupulous elements of both the RPR and UDF would be tempted to deal with the devil.Reuse content