Le Pen is mightier . . .

The extreme left did as well as the extreme right in the French election. Both rail against globalis

In the 1930s, the Communist International decreed to its affiliated parties all over the world that social democrats were a greater foe than the right, even than the fascists. Left tore into left - and, at the worst extreme, created a space for the National Socialists to occupy the German government.

Now a new "international" rules, which also has contempt for social democracy. It is the international alliance of the global movements, with its view that the world is being destroyed by capitalism. It has allied itself to the far left, especially in France. The most famous political figure in France during the past five years of Socialist government has been neither Lionel Jospin nor Jean-Pierre Chevenement; it has been Jose Bove, the small farmer who, in his fight on behalf of fellow Roquefort cheesemakers, led them to trash a McDonald's franchise, and enter history.

If one adds together the votes for all the far left and Green candidates in the first round of the French presidential elections, the combined total is nearly 24 per cent - more than for the candidates of the extreme right, including Jean-Marie Le Pen and Bruno Megret. Among those who voted (nearly a quarter did not), very nearly half placed themselves on the extremes of right or left, and the far left (including Greens, Communists and Ecologists) got at least 25 per cent more support than Lionel Jospin's centre-left Socialists. The "clap of thunder" to which Jospin, the former prime minister, referred in his dignified resignation speech was Le Pen's victory over him, pushing him into third place in the poll and excluding him from the run-off. But the hard rain that follows the thunderclap will fall on the groups and groupuscules of the French left.

This new, and powerful, left reaps success as both France, and the world, are improving. Jospin was a good prime minister. He inherited a depressed economy and a fractured society. He reduced unemployment from nearly 12 per cent to around 9 per cent; improved French growth and exports; introduced a 35-hour week that gave workers more leisure while also increasing productivity; and brought many of the poor into comprehensive medical cover.

There is a disturbing parallel here with the global movements. The world is becoming richer; and many of the poor within it are becoming richer, too. In the world's most populated countries, China and India, living standards are rising, sometimes quite rapidly. In large parts of south-east Asia and parts of Latin America, the same is true. Globalisation, including more open trade, has brought the poor real benefits; the evidence is that it can continue to do so. To be sure, the countries of war-torn sub- Saharan Africa have in only a few cases managed to raise themselves above extreme poverty; yet at last, the rich states of the world have mobilised to plan a new approach to development in Africa.

Neither the national example of France nor the global example has made much impression on the far left and the movements of anti-globalisation. They have taken the successes for granted (or mocked them) and fastened on the failures.

Since 11 September, a further momentum has set in. The far left and the global movements have identified the United States as an even more dangerous enemy than before. It is no longer simply a "McDonald's" or "Starbucks" imperialist, but has become a warmonger, particularly in its support for Israel. Jose Bove wears a Palestinian shawl.

In these politics, we see the deliberate abandonment of balance or reason - the latter being the quality that the French say they most admire. It is more true now than ever before that no state of poverty, no conflict, no politics of any kind, is simple. A globalising world imposes networks of power, influence and wealth in contradictory and hugely complex ways. Politics becomes increasingly a medium through which different centres of power are managed and their conflicts mediated. Non-state actors - corporations, NGOs, even private individuals of huge wealth - become larger players than states or political parties, which are always impoverished and desperate for money and talent.

The left and right extremes of politics would simplify all this into a modernised version of the class struggle: a fight between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. In that kind of simplicity, far left and far right conspire, appealing to the same constituency. The far-right vote in France, according to initial analysis, was concentrated among the young and the working class. Le Pen himself, calling on God above to give him victory in the second round of the elections, also invoked his base below: "the miners, the metal workers, the workers in all these industries ruined by Euro-globalisation, the farmers forced into bankruptcy . . . I have always fought for the people pushed out to the edge."

We have a baleful paradox. In a world that is getting richer, in which the centre left is making reforms, in which citizens of developed nations experience unprecedented comfort, leisure and entertainment - in this world, the extremes of left and right both claim that they are pushed to the edge, that the politicians of the centre are leading them to disaster, that the people they represent are forgotten and powerless, and must rise. This world is not like the 1930s, when working people came close to starvation; still less is it like the 19th century. This is a new century, full of technological, material and cultural promise. What has happened?

There are three answers. First, the global world is potentially present to everyone all of the time. We know of miseries, dangers and conflicts instantly, and can see them played out on media that never sleep. More than this, globalisation gives to the people of the developing world constant and powerful images of western wealth, and encourages them to make the often dangerous, sometimes fatal, trip to the west, to try to remake their lives in material affluence, whether legally or not.

All western states are now flooded with immigrants, many of them wretched. Wretched people will do anything to support themselves and their families, and those who control the networks of drugs and prostitution will exploit that vulnerability. Globalisation is also globalisation of people, and of crime. To what many in developed countries perceive as a threat, demagogues such as Le Pen have an answer: keep the immigrants out. The left tends to look away. Politicians on the right thus emerge as the truth-tellers and the protectors.

Second, in the rich states, hardly anybody under 60 can now remember total war or serious privation. Even those in late middle age have experienced nothing but steadily rising growth, incomes and comfort. Research by market consultants in Europe has revealed a generation that is more demanding, more impatient and more self-centred than any before: the electorate of the rich world expects constant improvement and appears to feel contempt for politicians even when they deliver it. Drawing their experience from a private sector that woos consumers, they simply demand to be served with all they want - now. Politicians are trapped between the demands of the public sector for more status and rewards, and the demands of the populace for more and better service.

Third, social democracy, the great organising force of the working class and the intelligentsia for much of the 20th century, has now changed - most radically and rapidly in the past 20 years. It had been rooted in the organised labour movements and in the revisionist currents of socialism; it had been strong among public sector workers, among industrial workers, among teachers and scholars. It had a powerful analysis of society and the world as full of inequalities - between rich and poor, men and women, white and black - and a set of tools for attacking these inequalities. One was Keynesian economics - a strategy for countering recessions and unemployment by using the state to spend and invest when private capital could not or would not. Social democracy believed in a mission and had the organisation, both in the trade unions and in the mass social-democratic parties, to further that mission.

Much of that has been lost. The great growth of inflation in the 1970s, the rise of unemployment (often together with inflation) in the 1980s, the collapse of the communist alternative, the success in the 1990s of the free-market US model - all convinced the social democrats who led the major parties that socialism, in the sense of social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, could no longer be on the agenda. Capitalism and its techniques had to be embraced by governments of the left: if they were not, then governments of the right in other states would be more successful in managing capitalism, and the corporations of these states would win out. The social democrats did not "leave" the working class; the class - always more complex than Marxism proclaimed - fragmented, and "left" social democracy.

The working class is individualised by the new forms of communication and entertainment. Its more secure members buy their own houses and cars and take holidays abroad. Its more insecure members find manual labour, their main source of employment, shrinking. Social-democratic parties did not cause these movements. They must cope with the consequences; and, as in France, lose out because of them.

In most European countries, a government of the left has now been replaced by one of the right - often with far-right participation. Ominously for September's federal elections, the ruling German Social Democrats have just lost Saxony. Both the Netherlands and Belgium, with left-tending coalitions, go to the polls later this year. It is possible that, by the end of 2002, the only governments of the centre left remaining in Europe will be those of Britain, Finland, Greece and Sweden; and that Britain and Canada will be the only members of the G7/8 with left-leaning governments. The new age of the centre left, proclaimed by Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroder and others, has been short indeed. We are now entering a Europe of the right - a right that is itself divided between the centre and the extremes, and which has not yet declared itself as an international force. But it will, and soon: last weekend in France made that certain.

The rising right

Throughout Europe, the right is winning votes. Here is what some of its leaders say:

Peter Skaarup Danish People's Party(12 per cent in November 2001 general election): "Three-quarters of rapes are carried out by non-Danes. We want to preserve Denmark as a non-immigrant country."

Carl Hagen Norway's Progress Party (member of centre-right governing coalition, with 26 out of 165 parliamentary seats): "If you have too many immigrants, you will have social conflict. That's a fact."

Umberto Bossi Italy's Northern League (governing coalition partner): "Immigration consists of Muslim invaders and common criminals from the third world."

Pim Fortuyn Liveable Netherlands party (one-third of the vote in Rotterdam municipal elections): "Islam is a backward culture."

Ronald Schill Germany's Party for a Law and Order Offensive (20 per cent in Hamburg local elections): "Deport black African drug dealers and the knife-stabbing Turks."

Jorg Haider Austrian Freedom Party (member of governing coalition): "There is something of a problem with the blacks . . . There is just not much brain about."