With last week's elections of regional authorities across France, the extreme right-wing National Front has sloughed off its pariah status and brought its vitriolic brand of anti-immigrant, anti-European, and anti-American rhetoric into mainstream French politics.
By throwing its support behind middle-of-the road conservatives in five districts, winning them the leadership of regional assemblies in return for commitment to an anodyne "minimum program" that the National Front put forward, the party has forged a hitherto unthinkable alliance with mainstream politicians.
The program favors law and order, job training, and no tax increases.
But behind the deals, French political leaders are warning, lies "a danger to our democratic life," in the words of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
President Jacques Chirac, a conservative, also spoke out against bringing the National Front in from beyond the pale of acceptable political discourse. "When one holds republican convictions, as I do ... one must not compromise them," he declared last week.
The French "republican" values of libert, galit, fraternit, say critics of the National Front, are foreign to the openly racist party led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who recently repeated his belief that the gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps were "a detail of history."
The manner in which five local leaders from the conservative "Rally for the Republic-Union for French Democracy" (RPR-UDF) coalition disobeyed strict orders from party leaders to have no truck with the National Front has thrown the center-right into turmoil.
The rebellion makes a rearrangement of the French political spectrum almost certain, and the National Front is likely to secure a firm place within the mainstream.
This would mark a major step toward political legitimacy for a party with neo-Fascist leanings that has always been held at arm's length by the French political establishment, despite the 15 percent of the vote that the National Front has averaged in recent elections.
It would also mark a personal victory for the second-ranking National Front official, Bruno Mgret, who designed the strategy of alliances with more moderate conservative forces so as to rid the party of its extremist image.
Mr. Mgret, a smooth and quietly spoken man, is widely seen as the heir apparent to the party's founder, the more provocative and outrageous Mr. Le Pen.
"One thing is certain," wrote commentator Alain Genestar in Le Journal du Dimanche. "Nothing will be the same as before. It is the end of an epoch, that of the war and of the postwar."
* This series continues tomorrow with a story on the political right-wing in Austria.
Europes Angry Nationalists
In the newly democratic Czech Republic, skinhead thugs beat a Gypsy woman to death.
In a tranquil Austrian country town, a local candidate rallies a crowd of farmers with a tirade against "foreign slime."
In regional elections in France last week, the neo-Fascist National Front insinuates itself into an alliance with established conservative parties that will change the face of French politics.
Right-wing political extremism has many faces in Europe. Its voices range from ugly ranting to smooth siren songs. Across the continent that spawned fascism three generations ago, radical right-wing parties are moving in from the margins to win growing support and influence.
They feed on the fear and discontent that have seeped into Europe at the end of the millennium.
The harsh winds of globalization, downsizing, deficit reduction, and modernization are beginning to whip through Europe. They are blowing away not only jobs but a sense of certainty and confidence in the future.
In this climate of economic hardship, radical right-wing parties from the Balearic Islands of Spain to the Baltics have sought to pin the blame on foreigners.
As political leaders try to turn their vision of a united Europe into a reality, more and more voters are turning to an angry nationalism that could destroy that future.