If there's one thing that chafes French pride, it's seeing the British steal the limelight. But in the face of real courage, even the proudest French person can only tip his hat and bow. The decision that the people of Britain have just made was indeed an act of courage - the courage of a people who embrace their freedom.
Brexit won out, defeating all forecasts. Britain decided to cast off from the European Union (EU) and reclaim its independence among the world's nations. It had been said that the election would hinge solely on economic matters; the British, however, were more insightful in understanding the real issue than commentators like to admit.
British voters understood that behind prognostications about the pound's exchange rate and behind the debates of financial experts, only one question, at once simple and fundamental, was being asked: Do we want an undemocratic authority ruling our lives, or would we rather regain control over our destiny? Brexit is, above all, a political issue. It's about the free choice of a people deciding to govern itself. Even when it is touted by all the propaganda in the world, a cage remains a cage, and a cage is unbearable to a human being in love with freedom.
The EU has become a prison of peoples. Each of the 28 countries that constitute it has slowly lost its democratic prerogatives to commissions and councils with no popular mandate. Every nation in the Union has had to apply laws it did not want for itself. Member nations no longer determine their own Budgets. They are called upon to open their borders against their will.
Countries in the euro zone face an even less enviable situation. In the name of ideology, different economies are forced to adopt the same currency, even if doing so bleeds them dry. It's a modern version of the Procrustean bed, and the people no longer have a say.
And what about the European Parliament? It's democratic in appearance only, because it's based on a lie: the pretence that there is a homogeneous European people, and that a Polish member of the European Parliament has the legitimacy to make law for the Spanish. We have tried to deny the existence of sovereign nations. It's only natural that they would not allow being denied.
Brexit wasn't the European people's first cry of revolt. In 2005, France and the Netherlands held referendums about the proposed EU Constitution. In both countries, opposition was massive, and other governments decided on the spot to halt the experiment for fear the contagion might spread. A few years later, the EU Constitution was forced on the people of Europe anyway, under the guise of the Lisbon Treaty. In 2008, Ireland, also by way of referendum, refused to apply that treaty. And once again, a popular decision was brushed aside.
When in 2015 Greece decided by referendum to reject Brussels' austerity plans, the EU's anti- democratic response took no one by surprise: To deny the people's will had become a habit. In a flash of honesty, the president of the European Commission, Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, unabashedly declared: "There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties."
Brexit may not have been the first cry of hope, but it may be the people's first real victory. The British have presented the Union with a dilemma it will have a hard time getting out of. Either it allows Britain to sail away quietly and thus runs the risk of setting a precedent: The political and economic success of a country that left the EU would be clear evidence of the Union's noxiousness. Or, like a sore loser, the Union makes the British pay for their departure by every means possible and thus exposes the tyrannical nature of its power. Common sense points towards the former option. I have a feeling Brussels will choose the latter.
One thing is certain: Britain's departure from the EU will not make the Union more democratic. The hierarchical structure of its supranational institutions will want to reinforce itself: Like all dying ideologies, the Union knows only how to forge blindly ahead. The roles are already cast - Germany will lead the way, and France will obligingly tag along.
Here is a sign: President Francois Hollande of France, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy and acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain take their lead directly from Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, without running through Brussels. A quip attributed to former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" now has a clear answer: Call Berlin.
So the people of Europe have but one alternative left: to remain bound hand-and-foot to a union that betrays national interests and popular sovereignty and that throws our countries wide open to massive immigration and arrogant finance, or to reclaim their freedom by voting.
Calls for referendums are ringing throughout the Continent. I myself have suggested to Mr Hollande that one such public consultation be held in France. He did not fail to turn me down. More and more, the destiny of the EU resembles the destiny of the Soviet Union, which died from its own contradictions.
The People's Spring is now inevitable! The only question left to ask is whether Europe is ready to rid itself of its illusions, or if the return to reason will come with suffering. I made my decision a long time ago: I chose France. I chose sovereign nations. I chose freedom.
NEW YORK TIMES
• Marine Le Pen is president of the National Front party in France. This essay was translated by John Cullen from French.