Before Toulon is irrevocably demonised, as it is bound to be, for becoming the first French city to elect an extreme- right city council, it should be stressed that it is not obviously bad or badly run.
Although it has long had a negative image in France and abroad, the northern part of the centre is elegant and well-maintained. The southern area, around the port, is a thriving shopping and office area, mostly pedestrianised, people-friendly and unthreatening. The whole inner area is cleaner than Marseilles, and the vistas out to the blue Mediterranean beyond the vast naval port and marina rival those of Nice.
Several of the larger French cities that looked likely to fall to the National Front on Sunday were vulnerable in every respect. They were ill-kept, dirty and had suffered from arbitrary planning decisions over many years. Their transport links with even the next big city were poor, and they had large populations of first- and second-generation immigrants, mostly exiled into soulless housing estates too large for the towns that had spawned them.
These places feel like dying and desperate cities. It was understandable that their inhabitants would be ready to vote for whomever seemed most capable of rescuing them from their plight.
Toulon, with a population of 170,000, has its problems, some of which echo those of the smaller cities which backed away from voting in the National Front. It is ringed by huge housing estates, whose quality varies from admirable to appalling. It has a large non-European population, mainly Africans and north African Arabs, and its unemployment rate, at 16 per cent, is well above the French average of 12 per cent.
It has also suffered from dubious planning decisions. A motorway cuts the city entirely in two. The outgoing council was trying to rectify this by building a road tunnel from one end of Toulon to the other, but the disruption caused by works did nothing to improve the voters' mood. Toulon also has a conference centre, well sited, but entirely in concrete and enclosed, that has failed to become a money-spinner like its model in Nice.
But these features alone do not explain why Toulon gave the National Front a majority on Sunday - on a turnout 5 per cent higher than the low (for France) 69 per cent of the first round. The majority was not large - barely more than 2 per cent - but it was enough.
Yesterday, members of both the defeated conservative (UDF) council, and of the incoming National Front council offered similar analyses of what had happened - and were keen to stress Toulon's peculiarities rather than any lessons, or warnings, the city might hold for the rest of France.
Toulon, said Jean-Claude Poulet-Dachary of the National Front, had been a rebel city for the past 200 years. During the revolution, it was monarchist; when the rest of France was Gaullist, it was Socialist; when the rest of the country was Mitterrand Socialist, Toulon was conservative. In electing the National Front, it was being true to form.
The main reason voters opted for the Front, according to spokesmen for both parties, was worry about crime. The National Front in Toulon says the worries are justified, especially on the estates, and made them the focus of its campaign. The defeated conservatives say that crime in Toulon is actually lower and mainly less serious than in Marseilles or Nice - the largest cities on either side. An outgoing city councillor, Daniel Gercin, said it was a "myth" inflated by the National Front for its own political purposes.
The other reason, peculiar to Toulon, was the killing two years ago of Yann Piat, then the city's conservative Senator. The murder, regarded universally as a political assassination connected with her attempts to expose corruption in the region, has never been fully cleared up. The National Front - another of whose main campaign points is to root out corruption in all forms - claims it is because the established parties did not try hard enough.
Now that it has won office in Toulon, it is in these directions that its policy priorities lie. It wants to strengthen law and order, abolish political corruption and redirect council spending towards unfinished projects (to bring back the tourists) and rundown areas.
The Front in Toulon was regarded as unusual, in Front terms, in placing immigration control only eighth and last on its list of priorities. A cynic would say this was because its officials realised they had a chance of winning and that mainstream parties could scupper their chances by mobilising voters of non-French origin. This is what several losing National Front candidates accused its opponents of doing on Sunday.
Even his political enemies, however, tend to agree that Toulon's new mayor, Jean-Marie Le Chevallier, is not obsessed by the race issue. His campaign literature stated clearly that all French laws on citizenship, equal treatment in education, health care, social services provision and housing would be observed. Other candidates in other cities were considerably less clear.
The new council intends, however, to use the law in its support. Meeting voters' concerns about crime, it intends to divert money from the council's "huge" public relations budget to provide many more municipal police, and redirect those it already has away from "extorting money from law- abiding motorists" to keeping order on council estates.
According to Mr Poulet-Dachary, however, keeping order includes not just stopping petty crime, but also checking, among other things, that foreigners who are registered as three-month "visitors" at a particular address are no longer there at the end of the three months.
The new administration in Toulon will have power at its disposal. Because of the way the proportional system works in local elections, the Front will have 41 councillors compared with the outgoing conservatives' five, and the Socialists' four. It also inherits an annual budget of 1.8bn francs.
One thing it has pledged not to do with that money is use it for patronage. It has promised to end the system of "clientalism", in everything from housing allocation to public works contracts. And it is probably here, rather than in race relations, that the real problems may begin.
In trying to tackle a system of patronage that functions more or less throughout the Mediterranean area, the National Front is taking on a whole culture. Its newly elected councillors may look ascetic, live blameless lives, and have between them a creditable record of administrative experience (five have served on the council before, most have held some elected position, locally, in a trade union or elsewhere, and a majority are professional managers), but can they take on the only system that has even half-worked in many southern cities?
Mr Gercin, from the outgoing council, smiled a smile of despair when I asked him, and predicted a total standstill.
Noting that France's mainstream parties did not campaign in Toulon, as they did desperately in several other cities to stop the National Front winning office, he even hazarded that some establishment outsiders might be hoping for exactly this. Perhaps, he mused with heavy irony, they want France's 13th-largest and perhaps least-loved city to be sacrificed, as an object lesson in what happens when the National Front gains power.
If the National Front wants a few lessons in the art of exercising municipal government discreetly, it could do worse than turn to Italy and the example of the far-right National Alliance. The Italian party which is doing everything it can to cover up its neo-fascist roots and advertise its new mainstream credentials, has been a model of cautious civic management in the handful of medium-sized towns where it has gained power in the past two years.
The National Alliance may have lost out to the left in Rome and Naples, the two big prizes it gunned for at the 1993 municipal elections, but it has nevertheless taken control of the mayor's office in eight provincial capitals in the centre and south of Italy. Four of these are in the immediate vicinity of Rome - Rieti, Frosinone, Viterbo and the biggest of them all, Latina.
Far from having to endure denunciations from its adversaries, the party has managed its rise to power without fuss and implemented policies remarkable for their ideological neutrality. Clearly, the strategy is to prove the Alliance's fitness as a party of government, and by all accounts the party leader, Gianfranco Fini, takes a keen interest to ensure his lieutenants avoid any neo-fascist clangers.
Latina, a centre for agriculture and light industry 60km south of Rome with a 90,000-strong population, is a city almost tailor-made for a far- right administration. It was built in the middle of the Pontine marshes drained by Mussolini in the 1930s, and conceived as a model of Fascist centralised economic management.
Almost bankrupted by decades of postwar mismanagement by the Christian Democrats, it was a fruit ripe for the plucking when a charismatic former army officer in the Salo Republic, Ajmone Finestra, stood for mayor on behalf of the National Alliance in November 1993.
Finestra's election campaign was remarkable for its lack of party-political rhetoric and avoided all mention of such sensitive issues as the large local population of north African immigrants. Similarly, his term in office has been notable more for wrangles over traffic management and the installation of parking meters than for any ideological dispute.
The only gaffe Finestra committed was to be quoted proposing a referendum to return Latina to its original Fascist name of Littoria. He rapidly issued a denial and the matter has not resurfaced since.
Paradoxically, some of the mayor's policies look distinctly left-wing, for example, introducing special rubbish collections for paper and glass and appointing a former drug addict as councillor for social services. But then the Italian Fascist tradition has always had a strong populist streak. It remains to be seen if the more aggressive French National Front follows suit.
Nostalgia and race
The Vlaams Blok, the strongest far-right party in Belgium, has found its largest support in the Flemish city of Antwerp. Here, in this prosperous port city, the centre of a rapidly expanding industrial complex, the Vlaams Blok won one-third of the votes in recent local elections. Although it failed to increase its support in last month's national elections, the party has established itself as the strongest single party in the city. It has 10 seats in the national parliament.
There is little doubt that much of the party's popularity stems from its appeal to Flemish nationalism. The party's literature recalls the heyday of Flanders in the 15th and 16th centuries. And it was no coincidence that the main Vlaams Blok rally during the May elections took place under the fluted galleries of Antwerp's historic stock exchange. Here the party's supporters dreamed of a new golden era when Flanders would once again be separated from the French-speaking region of Belgium, Wallonia, and become a fully independent state.
The Vlaams Blok has also found it easy to play the race card in a city with a 12 per cent immigrant population. In the Sixties and Seventies, large numbers of Moroccan and Turkish workers flocked to Antwerp to take low-paid jobs in and around the docks. The minorities now live in poor suburbs that sprawl around the city, creating familiar problems of resentment and tension over housing and jobs.
Antwerp was for many years a stronghold of the Flemish Socialist Party. But as traditional industries declined and unemployment rose, the party began to lose its appeal for many while the far right saw its chance to offer an alternative explanation for the economic woes of the Flemish underclass. The recent corruption scandals afflicting the Flemish socialists have also played into the hands of the Vlaams Blok.
The party has produced an array of young leaders who have campaigned tirelessly in poor neighbourhoods, calling for an end to immigration and a tougher police force to tackle rising crime. Philip de Winter, the Vlaams Blok's most charismatic leader, was born in Antwerp and is viewed as the party's rising star.