Modern Europe's greatest politicians have been men and women who were able to learn from and overcome defeat. They rebuilt and reunited a shattered and divided continent and threw off totalitarian rule. Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder and their peers are now challenged to demonstrate that their generation also has that talent and political fortitude.

The French president and the German chancellor suffered stinging personal rejections from their electorates in late May, and the Netherlands' coalition government was slapped around Wednesday as an irate public added its "no" to France's rejection of the European Union's constitution. A populist revolt against Europe's ruling establishment in Brussels and in national capitals is taking clear shape.

More than political careers are at stake. So is a certain idea of Europe's economic and social organization. Many national electorates sense that this model has been sidetracked in a drive by their leaders to expand the union at their expense and to concentrate on political battles rather than economic ones.

The ways in which Europe's leaders absorb, explain and work to overcome their separate but related rejections now become more important for the future of Europe -- and for transatlantic relations -- than the losses themselves. The case of Chirac, who was reelected with more than 80 percent of the national vote in 2002, will be particularly instructive.

It is easier to accept and glorify triumph as the natural outcome of genius or strength than to identify, analyze and master the many differing factors that actually determine outcomes. Those obsessive but rewarding tasks are left to losers, as German author Wolfgang Schivelbusch demonstrates in his fascinating book "The Culture of Defeat."

Chirac interpreted his easy triumph three years ago over ultrarightist Jean-Marie Le Pen as a massive vote for his policies rather than a fearful rejection of Le Pen. But the fact that the hate-mongering Le Pen was in that runoff balloting at all turns out to have been the salient fact of that election, as the decision on Sunday by 55 percent of those voting to reject the E.U. document testifies.

This was a winning coalition of noes. Anti-immigrant forces of the extreme right made common cause with anti-trade, anti-capitalist wings of the Socialist Party and the far left.

They served up a bubbling populist stew of dissatisfaction that overpowered the political establishment's bland claims that E.U. integration and expansion are virtuous in and of themselves.

A week earlier, Schroeder's Social Democrats lost a key state election -- and their ability to govern nationally -- for many of the same reasons. Unemployment tops 10 percent in both France and Germany. Chirac and Schroeder obviously pay the price of incumbents who oversee weakening economies.

But the president and the chancellor stand accused of misunderstanding and neglecting everyday economic threats -- real, imagined and manipulated -- posed to jobs by Chinese textile imports, Polish or Arab immigrants, or distant bureaucrats in Brussels. Resentment over rapid E.U. expansion last year to 25 nations without meaningful consultation of voters, and exaggerated fears that Turkey will soon become a full member of the union, also power the sullen European mood, in which fears from the left of economic forces mingle with hatred of foreigners from the right.

Boilerplate out of Brussels about pooling sovereignty did not work this time. Neither did attempts by Chirac and Schroeder to make the salient issue in their contests the dangers that American military and economic power allegedly raise for a politically integrated Europe.

Many Americans will enjoy seeing the French and German leaders take lumps of their own making. But it is not in the United States' long-term interest to encourage or to hope for a return to a Europe of divided, unstable governments that erect national barriers out of fear of neighbors and the world. That is the path Chirac and Schroeder must clearly reject in projecting a more pragmatic sense of Europe's destiny in the Atlantic community.

A politically stable Europe that is strong enough to cooperate with the United States on a consistent basis is preferable to a faltering, insecure Europe that feels it must constantly establish its own identity and independence in opposition to the United States. For a variety of reasons, Chirac and Schroeder have at times pushed for Europe to take the oppositionist course. They heralded the draft constitution as instrumental in that effort.

But the European project now has a good chance to go in another, more cooperative direction -- if the French and German governments, which set the pace on European integration, take to heart the questions and doubts their voters have raised about Europe's own social and economic conditions. That would mean concentrating on economic reform and liberalization at home instead of chasing more abstract and distant shadows of American power.

Their initial, instinctively political choices leave the question open. Schroeder has called snap elections for the autumn. Chirac has formed a new government that contains both realist and romantic wings. Europe's destiny now depends on how well its leaders handle defeat.

jimhoagland@washpost.com