W ith days to go until the first round of the French presidential election on April 23, four candidates - all of whom promise radical change in different ways - are in the running. It has been the most unpredictable campaign in the history of the Fifth Republic and the implications are profound not just for France but for Europe as a whole.
Last autumn, the most likely scenario saw the current Socialist president, François Hollande, running against his Republican predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National. Of that trio, only Ms. Le Pen is left standing.
Polls still point to her facing Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist minister who formed his own movement, En Marche! (‘On the Move!’) last year, in the runoff on May 7. This would pit a virulent eurosceptic, Ms. Le Pen, who wants to hold a referendum on leaving the eurozone and EU within six months of taking office, against a devout but inexperienced liberal whose style of centrist politics is rarely successful in France. Surveys suggest Mr. Macron would nonetheless beat every other candidate in the second round.
But first-round polls have narrowed so much over the past month that they are now too close to call. That is largely because of the rapid rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, another former Socialist minister running his own movement - the far-left France Insoumise (‘Unsubmissive France’). His innovative campaign has included hologram rallies and a bash-the-bankers computer game. His lively performance in the television debates has propelled him into joint third place.
As well as imposing a tax rate of 100% on the highest earners, Mr. Mélenchon wants to renegotiate the European treaties, including the foundations of the eurozone. If this “Plan A” fails, “Plan B” is to withdraw from the Union unilaterally. Markets are spooked by the prospect of a runoff between him and Ms. Le Pen: according to the Wall Street Journal, measures of how much investors are spending to hedge against a plunge in the euro are at their most extreme levels on record.
But an altogether more conventional candidate - François Fillon, a former Republican prime minister - could also emerge victorious despite three months of damaging headlines about claims he paid family members with taxpayer money for work they did not do. He is campaigning to inject some dynamism into France’s stagnant economy with Thatcherite cuts to public spending and liberal market reforms.
Around a fifth of people who say they will definitely vote are yet to make up their minds. Don’t rule out more surprises over the next fortnight.