The French people will decide tomorrow whether their next president will be a tarnished democrat or a racist demagogue.
The great danger to the poll is that many hundreds of thousands of French people have been convinced that Jean-Marie Le Pen is a plausible man: a politician of extreme, sometimes unpleasant views, but finally a rumbustious democrat and a warm-hearted patriot, who "asks the right questions".
The overwhelming likelihood is that he will be defeated by President Jacques Chirac, although not necessarily by the margins – 79 per cent to 21 per cent – suggested by the final opinion polls. If Mr Le Pen scores more than 30 per cent, the crisis in French politics and society will continue, even deepen.
To get the true measure of Mr Le Pen, of the evil he represents, it is not necessary to engage in a detailed examination of his incoherent policies or turbulent life history (from Algerian torturer, to street brawler, to millionaire by dubious means). By Mr Le Pen's own words – his most recent words – you can know him.
In the past two weeks, he has used the words "round-up", "transit camps" and "special trains". These are words almost exclusively associated with the arrest and deportation of French Jews by the Vichy government and Nazis during the Second World War.
Of course, Mr Le Pen used the words out of context. He spoke of setting up "transit camps" for illegal immigrants, of creating "special trains" to send Sangatte refugees to Britain and he accused the "corrupt" French establishment of organising a "rafle", a round-up, of artists and sportsmen to attack him.
His use of these words is, on one level, a vulgar and brutal joke, intended to infuriate the French chattering classes. But, according to Laurent de Saint-Affrique, his former communications director, they have another meaning for his hard-core supporters. They say: "I am one of you. We do not accept that the murder of millions of Jews was a crime against humanity. We do not believe the Vichy government that collaborated with the Nazis betrayed France."
In the space of one minute in the middle of his 80-minute open-air speech on Wednesday, Mr Le Pen used three "innocent" words or phrases that are anything but innocent in the lexicon and demonology of the far right.
He used the word "rafle", which is only ever used these days to describe the arrest of Jews in wartime France. This was followed by a reference to the "grand patronat apatride" (stateless big business), which has been a European far-right code phrase for "Jewish money and influence" for more than 100 years. In the next sentence, he described the motley alliance arrayed against him – from "Soviet" bishops to the far left – as something from a "Chagall painting". The artist Marc Chagall was Jewish.
Most of Mr Le Pen's voters, as opposed to party members, are not actively anti-Semitic. They many not even be overtly racist, although they are pre-occupied by North African and black immigrants and their alleged responsibility for France's much-exaggerated crime wave. Mr Le Pen dwells on these themes. He is, however, obsessed with the 1930s and 1940s and with the Jews.
His other favourite technique is to pervert the usual connotations of wartime words and memories. He talks about the "occupation" of France and how he is going to organise its "liberation", although the political genes of his party descend from the collabora-ting Vichy regime. He compares himself constantly to General Charles de Gaulle, even though De Gaulle was detested by the Vichy sentimentalists and the French Algeria movement, which forms another part of the National Front's genealogy.
All these words and phrases have double uses and meanings. They are intended to anger his enemies. But they also appeal directly to the tribal, and visceral, sense of identity of the French far right. They say that we, the descendants of Vichy – not the descendants of the Resistance, or De Gaulle, or the mainstream pro-European politicians of the past 50 years – are the true representatives of French national and racial "resistance".
Betrayal and treason are two more of Mr Le Pen's favourite words. As President Chirac belatedly pointed out on Thursday night, Mr Le Pen's political forefathers were responsible for the greatest single act of national betrayal in French history. "History disqualifies the [far right] for ever for speaking in the name of France," Mr Chirac said.
However genuine their anxieties, fears and contempt for mainstream politicians, the French people have an opportunity to speak in the name of France tomorrow.Reuse content