What’s the difference between France and an ostrich? None: They both have their heads stuck in the sand.

The first round of France’s presidential elections yesterday was a sad demonstration of the extent to which the French are in denial. After a campaign in which the burning issues were hardly debated, one-fifth of the French electorate voted for the racist extreme-right National Front, which scored its biggest success ever.

The National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, thanked the supporters of “the French identity” for her stunning success (even though she will not go through to the runoff, which will pit President Nicolas Sarkozy against his Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, in a tight contest).

Sarkozy has been unable to push through the reforms that he touted before coming to office. And Hollande seems to forget that membership in the eurozone means that France cannot call the shots alone — how does he think he can order growth unilaterally? And has he thought through the consequences of bringing in a 75 percent tax rate on the very wealthy?

The French think they are different from everyone else. But they are subject to the same chill winds blowing through the rest of Europe, where the rise of extremist parties has been inexorable and the power of the markets a threat to democratically elected governments.

It’s clear that the big vote for the National Front was a protest against both Sarkozy and Hollande, with French voters concerned about the future of the country, which has unemployment running at 10 percent and an unsustainable welfare state.

But after the results came in last night, the two main candidates were still talking about French exceptionalism. Sarkozy said the key issue is to preserve “the French way of life.”

Meanwhile, the market traders are sharpening their knives. The euro was down today, and Citigroup said it was “between Holland (where budget cutting talks collapsed) and Hollande.”

Whatever the final result on May 6, there will be trouble and strife ahead. France is a country that moves through sudden convulsions and revolutions. In a land with a strong presidential system and a weak parliament, they will be out on the streets by the end of the year once reality kicks in.