A hallucination, or maybe the nearest thing in politics to the pathetic fallacy: you come back after two weeks to a country where there’s just been an election – the extreme right has made a fair showing – and at once you read changes into the landscape. From the window of the train, ramshackle, low-income farmsteads that you’ve passed a hundred times take on a forbidding quality: there are voters in there, along with the livestock. The moribund hotel at the station where you’re waiting half an hour for a local connection now looks like it was requisitioned long ago as an HQ by sinister people who’ve been plotting for years, right under your nose. How come you never noticed?

Even so, there’s no sign of Marine Le Pen’s Front National making headway in our municipality (pop. 2765), an hour or so from Bordeaux. I check at the Town Hall to find the incumbent mayor has been returned in one round of voting, that the abstention rate was 40 per cent, a little higher than the national average in the second round – these elections have been a no-show disaster – and that we’re back with a broad, non-partisan mix of councillors pursuing the same objectives: balance the local budget, improve ‘le cadre de vie’, a phrase I struggle to translate, but maybe ‘existential context’ (and we’re doing OK on this score: there’s now a scrolling LED display at the main crossroads, announcing fishing contests and Loto soirées).

Elsewhere, in the north and the south-east, the FN has done well. Nationwide it has vastly increased its total of town councillors, and taken a dozen municipalities. But Le Pen’s success pales by comparison with that of the two centre-right parties: the PS lost 155 towns – real towns with a population of 9000 plus – leaving the UMP and the UDI with plenty to crow about, including Toulouse (France’s fourth largest city, and Europe’s aerospace hub), and Limoges (with the exception of the Vichy years, the left had enjoyed tenure there since 1912). There were also historic defeats for the left in the ‘ceinture rouge’ on the margins of Paris. From 1945 until last Sunday, both Bobigny and St Ouen had an uninterrupted succession of communist mayors. Socialism in one département – Seine St Denis – now looks like a collector’s item. Other Paris suburbs confirm the trend.

The PS held onto the inner city. The mayor of Paris since 2001, Bertrand Delanoë, a bedrock socialist with a green agenda, looked on with satisfaction as his deputy, Anne Hidalgo, came good. She is the first woman – and the first Andalucian – to win the office. In her hour of victory she confessed to Le Monde that she used to do her make up in the morning and wonder whether the person in the mirror was really the future mayor of Paris. The new prime minister, Manuel Valls – Hollande sacked his predecessor on Monday – was also born in Spain, and speaks four languages, but he will not be waving his Catalan credentials. As interior minister, he advised last year in perfect French that the Roma had a duty to go back to the east if they couldn’t fit in. France is still a non-multicultural, assimilationist environment and any other approach from a cabinet minister would have been seen as a perversity.

French presidents have little to gain by appointing feeble prime ministers – Valls’s predecessor, Jean-Marc Ayrault, was feeble – and Hollande has now settled on a tough guy. He has also chosen a kind of tricolore Blair, a French patriot of mixed European origins, a social liberal with a little more of the ‘social’ than our New Labour prototype, and more of the republican, but also a figure ‘linked eternally to Israel’, who was keen five years ago to change the Parti Socialiste’s name: it was the S-word he thought was out of date, though he didn’t care for ‘party’ either. If you can’t change the name, you may as well dispense with the withered remains of the thing, which is the way Valls and his president will want to go from here.