"The lesser of two evils" is suddenly a cliché with deep meaning for the voters (and non-voters) of France, who will be obliged in their second round of presidential voting to choose between a discredited conservative crook and a determined neo-fascist demagogue. Left behind was the Socialist prime minister, an uninspiring but decent politician, ironically undone by the same juvenile ultra-left to which he had long ago bid au revoir.
For all the differences between the French and American political systems, there are curious similarities between their current fiasco and the election that brought the Bush administration to power two years ago. Those parallels merit a moment's reflection before we condescend to mock them. In both countries, public interest and popular will were thwarted by apathy and alienated posturing.
The politics of posturing idealizes doctrinal purity over pragmatic partisanship. It encourages voters to select candidates who will never govern over those tarnished by the inevitable compromises of governing. It insists upon a lazy ignorance of the differences between major parties. It transforms the most important act of citizenship into impotent acting-out. It protests reality and rejects responsibility. Worst of all, it underestimates the threat from forces that are hostile to democracy and modernity.
Certainly that is what befell France, where inaccurate polling and elite boredom permitted the assumption that Jean-Marie Le Pen could never win more than his usual fraction of the presidential vote. Those who abstained thought that they would be able to register their true preference between conservative Jacques Chirac and Socialist Lionel Jospin in the second round of voting, after Mr. Le Pen and more than a dozen minor candidates had been eliminated.
There was a rational basis for that complacent assumption. Although Mr. Le Pen has broadcast his racist hostilities and his authoritarian nostrums for three decades, his National Front party never polled more than 15 percent, and usually got less. This time, however, thanks to declining voter turnout, roughly the same number of far-right ballots translated into nearly 17 percent of the total.
That was just enough to give this repulsive character-who used to sell recordings of Hitler on the street-a lead of less than 1 percent over Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister and titular leader of the left. Roughly 44 percent of the diminished turnout was divided among left-wing parties, which had spurned Mr. Jospin despite such radical innovations as a 35-hour work week (and the addition of 900,000 new jobs in the French economy).
The French Socialists did make some concessions to global competition, and that's what ruined Mr. Jospin's reputation among the more doctrinaire elements of the left. Like Mr. Le Pen, they like to imagine that France can somehow isolate itself from economic and cultural change. They now face the choice of voting for the despised Mr. Chirac or risking even greater damage to their country.
There's an old slogan about Trotskyism that aptly describes this kind of electoral behavior and its consequences: "left in form, right in essence." Moldy ideologies and fringe "revolutionaries" may be confined to continental Europe, but Americans have their own tiny movement whose left-wing rhetoric promotes right-wing ascendancy. It's called Naderism.
The leader of that movement showed up recently in Florida to reiterate his denunciations of the Democratic Party, which was holding its spring conference in Orlando. He attracted a substantial group of his followers to a rally where he explained again that there was no significant difference between the two major parties.
Even while Ralph Nader was delivering his rote witticisms, the public-interest groups he founded were lobbying feverishly in Washington to defeat the energy proposals of George W. Bush, the President who owes his victory to Mr. Nader. At issue was the desire of Mr. Bush and his oil-industry backers to open the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. A victory for the White House would have dealt a terrible symbolic blow to the environmental values proclaimed by Mr. Nader and his supporters.
Fortunately for the country and the caribou, the Naderites were proved wrong again. On a vote that tested whether Democrats could successfully filibuster the ANWR legislation, the Senate leadership kept all but a handful of Democratic members in line. Assisted by several dissident Republicans, mostly from the Northeast, and Vermont independent Jim Jeffords, they inflicted a bitter defeat on the would-be despoilers. (Mr. Nader himself was absent from that struggle, which was made necessary by his own role in the 2000 election.)
The Democrats, of course, are full of faults these days. Their reluctance to fight back is infuriating; their failure to articulate an alternative vision is dispiriting. Like the French Socialists, their bland leadership frequently seems to prefer boredom over conflict. They should realize-as France has now learned the hard way-that ennui can be very dangerous, too.
You may reach Joe Conason via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.