Nicolas Sarkozy, the front runner for the French presidency, has suggested that pedophilia is an incurable genetic disposition, that rioting Arab youths are scum and that an Orwellian sounding ministry for immigration and national identity is a good idea.
Segolene Royal, his socialist challenger, wants the French to celebrate family, work and the flag. And on Friday, a suppressed official poll suggested that the racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who once described the Holocaust as a detail of history, will come second in next week's presidential ballot. He will be entitled to a run-off against Sarkozy, a repeat of the election he fought five years ago against Jacques Chirac and a sign that liberal and left forces in France are being routed.
It is an unhappy panorama. But there is little doubt that 30 years of sky-high unemployment, urban decay and a mounting sense that France is in incurable decline have begun to move this great Enlightenment country emphatically to the right. Even if the meltdown scenario of Le Pen coming second in the first round of voting is avoided, its clear that a sullen, truculent mood has descended on France, the country above any other in Europe that has a track record of airing European-wide trends.
Which is why the first round of France's presidential elections this Sunday is so important. The vicious circle in which France is trapped -- unemployment spreading, poor morale begetting more poor morale -- clearly needs to be broken. Nobody disagrees that there must be a break with the old ways of doing things.
And that, in turn, means looking to an outsider to lead the change. Just what that change might be is less clear.
So it is that the two candidates from right and left, Sarkozy and Royal, and the surprise success in the center, Francois Bayrou, have all presented themselves as outsiders independent of their political tradition and the state.
One is the son of a Hungarian immigrant, one a woman in a still very sexist society, and the other a provincial farmer. All three stories are, of course, fiction: Sarkozy has been a minister in the outgoing government for five years; Royal's partner is the chair of the Socialist Party; and Bayrou has been a feature of French political life since whenever. But that's not the point. The symbolism of outsiderdom is vital to be a credible advocate of change.
After all, Le Pen has been successfully exploiting his outsider status in more than 50 years of extreme right-wing politics.
The drive to outsiderdom and the right will have profound implications for Europe. France is the European country that takes European values to an irrational, almost surreal, degree. Most Europeans are committed to a European-style welfare state, but it is France which elevates welfarism and solidarite to a religion. Again, most Europeans have uncertainties about US-style free markets. It is the French who have turned the uncertainty into a cult. And there is a general European doubt about the racial, ethnic other, Muslims especially, but it is the French who have created the phenomenon that is Le Pen.
Any French president has simultaneously to reform the system, but respect those surreal extremes, a task that increasingly looks like being settled by coming down on the right. If so, no corner of Europe will be unaffected. Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, says privately that his biggest discovery since taking over the commission is that nothing substantive can happen without France.