The left will have to wake up if it is to avoid more defeats

Jospin failed to exploit France's huge potential to cope with a changed world, in the way that Blair has done with Britain
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Here's a little quiz question. Which British politician told a meeting in his constituency a mere 10 days ago: "One word of caution: there are centre left governments all over the European Union that are losing elections on asylum, crime and immigration-related issues"?

Even then, this wasn't exactly rocket science. The Netherlands had already proved his point. It nevertheless has an eerily prophetic ring given that Jean-Marie Le Pen's victory over Lionel Jospin in the first French presidential ballot was predicted by virtually no pundit or European politician apart from Le Pen himself.

You've probably guessed it was Tony Blair, answering a question from a local party member on asylum. And certainly this reflects part – though only part – of the reading yesterday in Blairite circles of Le Pen's success, one which has indeed ended the political career of the French centre-left Prime Minister.

There may be a lot of truth in the standard explanation on the French left that, by exaggerating fears about crime, President Chirac drove many electors into the arms of Le Pen. There is a lot of truth in the charge that wilful, adventurist flirtation by a large number of French socialists with the ultra-left helped to do for Jospin.

But privately there is another New Labour gloss on this shocking result, which is that the French socialists had almost wholly failed to learn the lesson of two Blair victories: that it was necessary to have a pre-emptive strategy for dealing with the issues that most excite the right. This didn't, of course, mean assuming merely that you had to deal with crime rather than the causes of crime. It meant that you had to be as tough on racism as on bogus asylum-seekers. But you could not, as Blair told his private party meeting in Sedgefield, "pretend to people there wasn't a problem when there was".

Before exploring a little further the question of why Jospin fell while Blair has – so far – triumphed, let's dispense with the fallacy that Le Pen's result had everything to do with factors other than the driving and cynical ambitions of Le Pen himself. The commentator Dominique Moisi's remark that Le Pen's supporters had chosen the "banalisation of evil" is a characteristically French formulation. But evil is the right word. A racist demagogue who can't decide whether he is more anti-Jewish or anti-Arab has used all his considerable power in 20 years of front-line campaigning to perfect an evil cocktail of policies that perverts as it suborns even what some of the traditional French far-right has long stood for.

Which makes it tempting to assume that there are therefore no lessons that go beyond France's borders, let alone across the English Channel. Tempting, but a mistake. The first is what it says about disillusionment with the two main parties and apathy about politics itself. At 72 per cent, the turnout was historically low; non-voters were the single biggest group, apathy as well as the fragmentation of the left undoubtedly serving to strengthen the showing of Le Pen in relation to the main parties. In Britain, however, this problem is significantly worse, turnout in June 2001 having fallen to 59 per cent That would be bad enough if it were only a matter of the numbers. But the main explanation for low turnout advanced in government circles immediately after the British general election – apart from the dangerously hubristic contention that it simply reflected "contentment" on the part of the voting masses – was that the contest was a foregone conclusion and that many voters therefore saw no reason to participate. That argument is seriously undermined by the outcome of the first presidential ballot in France, given the closeness of the perceived gap between Chirac and Jospin throughout the contest.

Which adds, or should add, considerable urgency to the task of engaging the growing army of disengaged British voters. This isn't based on a glib assumption that the BNP is suddenly about to break through on a Le Pen-like scale. It isn't, though the Labour MP Phil Woolas's commendably untribal appeal to choose any other party in Oldham shows that he recognises the risks that the success of a racist party can feed on itself. But it does underline the point that Britain is not immune from the long-term problems of voter disconnection.

No doubt this does mean continuing to take the voters' fear of crime and disorder more seriously. The discovery that crime mattered on the council estates more than it did in the well-heeled suburbs was a real one, not mirrored as much as it should have been by French Socialist Party. But it should also call into question the notion that elections are merely a manipulative struggle for a few thousand votes in a marginal minority of constituencies. It speaks for a more adult conversation with the electorate, perhaps even one in which the truth can be told about tax. It means that politicians have to use elections to educate as well as cleaving to the lowest common denominator of what they can get away with; telling the truth about the huge value of immigration as well promising to tighten up on bogus asylum-seekers. And it may now mean a much more adventurous approach to democratic renewal, from the council chamber to the House of Lords.

The wrong lesson to draw – or at least in the sense that it will be argued by British Eurosceptics that it is the right one – is that this was a vote against Europe there and a reason for a vote against the euro here. Yes, the worst possible response would be to increase the extent to which the EU interferes in what Lord Hurd calls the "nooks and crannies" of national life. And if a French Socialist party, reunited around a more old left stance, were to win the legislative elections, the kind of economic reform that would make British euro-entry more attractive could be further delayed. But that depends on what happens in the next two months. Europe didn't feature that much in the French campaign. And the extent to which it may now, as Le Pen seeks to differentiate himself from Chirac, owes as much to France's fears of losing its European hegemony as to a challenge to its membership of the euro and the EU.

But the most immediate lesson is this. It was not, for once, hyperbole for the Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane to call Sunday's result "a wake-up call for the European left". It does look very much like the end for the old mantras. While Jospin fought a campaign almost copybook in its awfulness, that wasn't his biggest problem. He failed because, in trying defensively to reconcile too many irreconcilable interests – from the unions to the anti-globalisers – he failed to have a mission that exploited modern France's outstanding ability to cope with a changed world in the way that the Blair government, for all its faults, has done in Britain. Even as Mr Blair incenses European socialists by his needless schmoozing with Silvio Berlusconi, it is his Labour Party, its exportable credibility bolstered not a moment too soon by Gordon Brown's genuinely social demoratic budget, that still looks like a winner, while they fall like dominoes.