A campaign that smells like a sausage

France's electoral system, a Gaullist relic, was an accident waiting to happen. It has turned politi

With some delicacy, the erstwhile French president Edouard Herriot held that politics in France should, like the tripe sausage, "smell a little like shit, though not too much". Now the smell seems overwhelming. Britons and many other Europeans are entitled to feel some pious disgust with France over the mess in which the presidential election has landed the country. It hardly helps that the voters seem to be chiding themselves, saying: "Oh no! If we had known this could happen, we would have voted differently."

Nor does it help much that - in full conformity with the Herriot principle - the conservative Jacques Chirac, a thoroughly discredited president, is sure to win re-election in a run-off duel with Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National on 5 May. Plainly, the choice before France stinks. The whiff carries beyond its frontiers and into the Europe it believes it is cut out to lead. The French are left holding their own noses. France was the first, you will recall, to want to ostracise Austria for swerving to the far right. It was also the first to upbraid Italy for voting the dubious Silvio Berlusconi into power (and to scowl at Tony Blair for consorting with him).

One danger is that Le Pen's astonishing breakthrough to the pole of French politics in the first round of voting will take the election battle on to the streets. Anti-Le Pen forces are already out there in their tens of thousands, yelling no to fascism. Students are taking the lead in Paris and other large cities. We all know what French students are capable of. I hate to think what may happen when Le Pen's own people, flushed with triumph, stage their annual May Day demonstration in Paris on the eve of the decisive second round. The event is always a provocation.

How did France come to this? How did it happen that Lionel Jospin, a competent, well-meaning leader of the left, was carelessly eliminated from a major election that he was well placed to win? Why will half of all French voters, those who both deride Chirac and despise Le Pen, in effect be left disenfranchised on 5 May? Something went wrong with the US electoral system when George Bush became president despite losing to Al Gore by maybe half a million votes. Now something has gone equally wrong in France.

The map of modern France on my wall offers two main reasons: one social, the other a serious lapse of the political process. At first sight, the French have less to protest against than most. Their economy is faring reasonably well - even in the present adverse world conditions. Their companies take on the world with brio. They enjoy levels of social security that French Thatcherites have been unable to tamper with, and they expect and get high-quality public services in return for the high(ish) taxes that they pay. Even unemployment is well on the way down. In terms of the economy, the French are now doing better than the Germans, and have been doing so for some time.

But France has had less success than its European neighbours in solving the immigrant equation, and this has become a weeping sore in the French psyche. The 7 per cent of the population who are of foreign origin are largely of Muslim Arab extraction, North Africa being close at hand and, thanks to colonial history, its people being familiar with the French language. Integration has not gone well, in part because French officialdom handles it badly. Instead of conferring French nationality on permanent Arab immigrants, it is stingy with the gift, as if afraid of corrupting a core Frenchness. This has maintained divisions that were not minor in the first place, French culture being a proud and prickly customer.

Here lies Le Pen's opening. Crime - or so he and the moderate right contend - is ever rising in France. The underlying suggestion in mainstream news coverage and police reporting is that Arabs, seen as impoverished and quite likely to be unemployed, are disproportionately responsible.

In the presidential race, Jacques Chirac, searching for a winning campaign theme, hit on law and order. Having undermined presidential authority by doing next to nothing in recent years, he had little else to go for. His intention was to destabilise his rival Lionel Jospin, whom he thought he was certain to face in the decisive run-off. It perhaps escaped him that the fanfare he was making of insecurity was also boosting Le Pen, who could stand back and grin and ask the French: why buy a copy when you can have the original? Between them, against the background of 11 September and perceived Muslim militancy, Chirac and Le Pen have contrived to scare the French halfway out of their wits: 60 per cent of the electorate put personal security at the top of their voting motives.

So count Jospin's abrupt departure from political life, if you will, as an oblique scalp for Osama Bin Laden, and perhaps also as a payment for violence in the Middle East. Indeed, young French Arabs, infuriated by Israel's war tactics, appear to be behind recent attacks on Jewish synagogues and property in France, increasing the general sense of insecurity.

There can be no ignoring Jospin's own role in his failure to finish in the top two of the first-round presidential vote - that result was seen as a foregone conclusion, despite Le Pen's looming presence in the opinion polls. On voting day, with abstention running high, Le Pen's electrifying score exceeded by as much as half again his tally in the opinion polls. Alas, any lustre Jospin showed was confined to dwelling on his competence in governing the country as prime minister over the past five years. He may well lament France's ingratitude. It does seem unjust. But Jospin fell down on charm and persuasiveness, exhibiting little of either. He also fell into the law-and-order trap, watching Chirac gain popularity on that terrain and, at length, blandly following him there, losing his political identity in the process.

What is most surprising about Le Pen's performance is that, at the age of 73, as a serial candidate in major elections since the 1970s, and having been latterly written off, he has now smashed through his own electoral barriers. Add the small score of a breakaway extremist who is now back in Le Pen's camp, and the far right won 20 per cent of the vote. Le Pen's previous ceiling was 15 per cent.

France feels it has been hit by an earthquake. In fact, the far right has always been of a size to cause tremors. Between the world wars, Charles Maurras and his xenophobic Action Francaise were an influential force. Then came Philippe Petain and Vichy under the Nazi occupation, and, in the 1950s, the anti-establishment surge of Pierre Poujade with his small shopkeepers' revolt. There is much of Poujade in Le Pen, with racism stirred in. He has the small shopkeepers on his side, and to them are allied small-business people, artisans and working-class lads.

The frailty of Le Penism is that it is, like Poujadism, a powerful one-man show. At his age, Le Pen's current triumph is no doubt a last hurrah - one that none the less threatens to give his Front National a good few seats in the National Assembly in the general election that follows the presidential contest, on 9 and 16 June.

Back, then, to the tripe sausage. Its odour is ripened by what is now exposed as a flawed electoral process. The joke vote, the scoffer's vote, the empty protest vote in the 21 April presidential ballot, went to extremes that Le Pen himself can hardly improve on. This adds a whiff of low music hall. That Jospin was eliminated from a major national contest by fringe characters from his own side is a base farce. Perhaps it was only right that one of France's two state-owned TV networks switched away from the election-night results early on, replacing them with the knockabout film antics of the late Louis de Funes, a revered French clown.

No fewer than seven other candidates of the left and far left, from the nation's darling Trot (Arlette Laguiller) and its most self-regarding republican nationalist (Jean-Pierre Chevenement) to a keen Green and a voluble postman, soaked up backing that could have put Jospin through with ease. These four contestants alone took more than 20 per cent of the vote. And why not? The first round of a presidential election has become the time to show off minor talents before the big guns face off in the second round. Democracy, to be sure, requires that everyone should have a vote. But when everyone also gets to stand for president - 16 candidates contested the first round, an all-time record - the sense of the election is more than likely to be skewed.

This time, the system has imploded. It was waiting to happen. The ambiguities in the constitution, tailored for a grand comeback by Charles de Gaulle at a time of stress in France over 40 years ago, are all too familiar. Hitherto, its main fault has been to produce "cohabitation", the poisoned power-sharing and blocked governance that ensues when the president comes from one side but the majority in parliament (and hence the prime minister) comes from the other. Cohabitation has been the fate of President Chirac and Prime Minister Jospin for the past five years. This presidential race was supposed to unblock things; it still might, if the general election produces a swing to the mainstream right despite the promise of Le Pen candidates to obstruct the poll.

But if the charade of the presidential run-off convinces French voters that they have made a mistake and must correct the register, they are just as likely to compensate by keeping the left in power in parliament under a liberal successor to Jospin, such as the finance minister, Laurent Fabius. Then the jinx of cohabitation would resume. Now, after the shock delivered in the first stage of the presidential race, France must rework its constitution.

A faint accompanying aroma will do.