I was an Israeli journalist in Paris when Jean-Marie Le Pen, then the leader of the National Front party, made it to the second round of the presidential elections in April 2002, beating out the Socialist candidate. The shock in France was considerable. I, too, was stunned. It was a feeling of utter surprise and also of shame.
In the second round (on May 5, 2002) we witnessed the political system's comprehensive enlistment to the cause, what became known as the "Republican Front." The entire Left, including the Communists, voted for the right-wing candidate, Jacque Chirac. "To save France" was the battle cry of the hour. Europe looked on with astonishment as the extreme Right rose to prominence in the country where human liberties originated. Le Pen only managed to increase his strength by one and a half percent (to 17.79 percent) in the second round, but from his perspective he had won. He had surpassed the National Front's customary 15 percent.
In those elections, a psychological roadblock was breached in France in particular and in Europe in general: You could vote for the extreme Right and not be skewered for it. Even worse, it gave birth to the possibility that the far Right could win in post-World War II Europe.
On Sunday, France added another shameful date to its history books, but so did Europe: The National Front, now led by Marine Le Pen (the talented, to our regret, daughter of Jean-Marie), won 25 percent of the vote, quadrupling her result from 2009. This was not merely a victory in a local election (shameful), or a cantonal election (shameful), or succeeding in adding representatives to parliament (shameful). This time it is a victory on a national scale, in the elections to the European Parliament. France will not look good in the coming years sitting in the display window of Europe. French newspaper Le Figaro was right by describing the election results as "a political earthquake." Thirty years after the European elections in 1984, when the National Front made its initial yet barely noticeable foray onto the political scene, Le Pen has made sure that her party is now clearly on the map. It is hard to conceive that the National Front can expect to command 74 seats, one-third of France's entire parliamentary delegation in Strasbourg.
And while it is true that many explanations can be found for this victory, backed by a French electorate that no longer feels the need, as it once did, to conceal its political preferences: the economic situation, unemployment, increasing Euroskepticism, the substandard quality of politicians in France today. After all, the writing has been on the wall since May 2012, when the Socialist Francois Hollande defeated Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency. From the view of the French voter, they both received a failing grade. It was clear already at the time that Hollande would not succeed, that the republican right-wing was no longer an option. And it was also clear that La Pen was waiting in the weeds; that the National Front had become an alternative.
And this is not just happening in France. The Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn will introduce its first members to the EU parliament. In Germany as well, far-right opposers of the EU garnered unprecedented success, and there, too, the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party will send its first representative to Strasbourg. In Austria, meanwhile, the extreme right-wing Freedom Party of Austria won 20.5 percent of the vote, finishing in third place.
While we have been justifiably concerned over the fate of European Jewry, the extreme Right has returned to the continent. How unfortunate the Jews are, finding themselves between the hammer and the anvil. The forefathers of the EU, among them Robert Schuman, are likely turning in their graves. Strasbourg, a symbol of the French-German rivalry, had become a bastion of the EU and is now a haven for hatred and division. My heart goes out to the city's long-standing Jewish community. New neighbors, quite repulsive ones at that, are moving in. Europe now needs to take stock, and only then, perhaps, should it allow itself to preach to others.