A friend of ours, a retired Parisian lady who staunchly refuses to treat advancing years as an excuse for mellowing, produced a noise suspiciously close to a genteel snort. How are we to know who to vote for, she demanded, when there are no fewer than 34 party lists on the ballot paper?
Well, all credit to France's voters, they managed to work it out, and in record numbers too. The end result made the election look like a two-horse race between Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally (formerly the Front National), and Emmanuel Macron's centrist On the Move (La République en Marche) party, with 23.3% and 22.4% of the votes respectively. It didn't look that way back at the starting gate.
In the British media, the headline story has been Le Pen's victory: how it both conforms with the advance of the 'populist' right across the EU and reverses the failure of her run-off against Macron in the 2017 French presidential election. Considered from within France though, the picture is a long way from being quite that simple. In several respects it feels altogether different.
Le Pen is entitled to savour her moment in the sun, but her win ('a victory for the people') is not the breakthrough she must have been hoping for. It follows seven long months of often violent rioting across the country against Macron's reform programme – disturbances that at their height occasionally looked capable of turning into an uprising against the young president, similar in nature and consequence to the 'events' of 1968 that brought the downfall of Charles de Gaulle.
Le Pen's posters urged the electorate to 'vote against Macron', while her top candidate, 23-year-old Jordan Bardella, presented the election unambiguously as 'a referendum on Macron'. Clearly, Le Pen's strategy was to seize ownership of the disaffection animated by the gilets jaunes, and since none of the other parties looking to work the same trick got very far with it, she must be presumed to have succeeded. Yet it brought only a slender victory over an undoubtedly unpopular president.
Here on the ground, this comes as no great surprise. Last Saturday, the day before France went to the polls, only 12,500 gilets jaunes were out on the streets – notably in Macron's home town of Amiens. It compares with 300,000 in the early weeks of the protest and also corroborates the virtual disappearance of DayGlo tabards from car dashboards – the symbol of passive endorsement visible back before Christmas in every second vehicle, in our region at least. A faction of the gilets contesting the election in its own right won just 0.5%.
Macron cannot infer from all this that his much-heralded 'grand national debate' and the significant concessions that flowed from it have won over the hearts and minds of French voters. Thirty-four competing parties are not the measure of a settled, contented politics. But it does look as though the protests against him are subsiding, at least in their current form.
Nor can Le Pen draw too much encouragement from her win in respect of future election prospects. French leaders are no more immune to mid-term kickings from the voters than their UK or US counterparts, and Macron must have been braced for much worse. His party fought a pretty wretched campaign, run so ham-fistedly by his former Europe minister, Nathalie Loiseau, that the president himself was forced to take to the hustings in the latter stages, contrary to the norm of the Élysée Palace remaining aloof from vulgar vote-grubbing.
Le Pen has certainly reaffirmed the extent to which she has detoxified her party from the days when it was led by her immigrant-baiting father Jean-Marie. Yet, if she has advanced its standing at these elections, the progress is pretty marginal.
The comparison that tells us most is not with her defeat by Macron in the 2017 presidential vote, but with the performance of her party in the last European elections in 2014. She won that time too, and by a bigger margin than now: 24.85% against 20.8% for her nearest rivals, the old centre-right UMP (now Les Républicains) of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkhozy. The then president, François Hollande, and his Socialist party were pushed into third place. Much good did it do her three years later against Macron.
This time, the turnout was bigger, rather countering the idea that she won by surfing a populist tide. Part of her problem is the EU itself. Where once she could float the prospect of a French withdrawal from the euro, even from membership of the union, she now does no more than grumble in a minor key about institutional structures and Macron's unswerving enthusiasm for the ideal of European unity. The awful example of Britain's Brexit humiliation has discouraged demands for Frexit, which were never all that popular in any case. Public buildings here invariably fly the EU flag beside the French tricolour, and very few people seem to take much issue with it.
Meanwhile, what of those other 32 runners and riders? The most startling performance among the smaller parties was that of the Greens, never before much of a force in French politics. They surged into third place, with nearly 13.5%, compared with less than 9% in 2014. Macron's tireless banging of the climate change drum seems to have benefited them more than him.
What this election does confirm is a politics still in flux. After all, Macron himself was elected Farage-like in 2017, at the head of a party that had emerged overnight from nowhere. Last Sunday, the Républicains and the Socialists, not so long ago the impregnable duopoly of French government, scored a paltry 8.5% and 6.2% respectively.
It is a picture that has been replicated across much of continental Europe at this election. French voters have shown definitively that the old order is broken. But they have not answered the question of what is to take its place. There is still everything to play for.