In more than 20 years as a pollster, Frédéric Dabi, the director of Ifop, France's oldest polling company, says he has never seen anything as "unthinkable, unprecedented and surprising" as this year's presidential election.
All the old rules have been broken. "A presidential election is supposed to be the height of polarisation between left and right," Dabi says. Now that the extreme right-wing Front National (FN) claims the loyalty of close to 30 per cent of the electorate, "It's become a three-way race – four ways if you don't categorise [the independent centrist] Emmanuel Macron with the left."
Another salient feature of this election is what the far left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon calls "dégagisme", roughly translated as "get lost-ism".
Since last year, president François Hollande, the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, the former prime ministers Alain Juppé and Manuel Valls, not to mention the former Green leader Cécile Duflot and the former centrist leader François Bayrou, have been swept away by the hunger for new faces.
"In this election, we have seen the elimination of all the incumbents," Dabi says. He believes the main reason for dégagisme is bitter disappointment with the last two presidential terms, of Sarkozy and Hollande.
Neck and neck
The FN leader Marine Le Pen and Macron are running neck-and-neck in polls. For the first time, a Harris Interactive poll published yesterday placed Macron in the lead.
Fillon will find it difficult to reconcile his demand that the French make sacrifices with the generous payments to his wife and children, especially after he styled himself as 'Mr Clean'
If, as expected, Le Pen and Macron win the first round on April 23rd , two alternative candidates will face each other in the May 7th runoff. Conservatives and socialists, who have alternated in power for the past 60 years, will not even figure on the ballot.
"We're looking at a double April 21st," Dabi says, referring to the shock of April 21st 2002, when the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin was defeated in the first round by Marine Le Pen's father Jean-Marie.
If François Fillon, a former prime minister and the nominee for the conservative Les Républicains (LR), does not make it to the run-off, his party is expected to fragment.
Dabi never believed that Fillon would withdraw from the race, despite a scandal involving payments by the National Assembly and Senate to his wife and children for work they may not have done.
Fillon refused to give up because he won 2.9 of 4.5 million votes in the LR primary. “Fillon is wounded but not dead,” Dabi says.
Fillon will find it difficult to reconcile his demand that the French make sacrifices with the generous payments to his wife and children, especially after he styled himself as “Mr Clean” in the primary.
“People keep telling us how hard it is for their children or nieces and nephews to find internships that pay €400 a month,” Dabi says. “Fillon’s children received more than €3,200 monthly, when the average French salary is €1,700.”
But corruption may be less of a handicap than it once was.
“In interviews, we hear ‘They’re all rotten’ a lot less than ‘They’re all impotent’ – at dealing with the crisis, at getting results, at improving the situation of the country,” Dabi says.
Support for Le Pen is stable, but Macron has momentum and appeals to a broader spectrum of society. Ifop polls shows 34 per cent of the French believe Macron will be the next president, while 18 per cent believe Le Pen will win.
Hollande has told visitors in private that he will vote for Macron, not the official socialist candidate Benoît Hamon
The wave of anti-elitism is a threat to Macron. At least three times, he has been accused of contempt for “the people”. In 2014, Macron called slaughterhouse workers who were about to lose their jobs in Brittany “illiterate”.
In 2016, he told protesters against the labour law that the best way to buy a smart suit like his was to get a job. And in January, he lamented the high level of tobacco and alcohol addiction in the former mining region of northern France.
The other danger to Macron is the perception that he would be the continuation of his former mentor, François Hollande.
Hollande has told visitors in private that he will vote for Macron, not the official socialist candidate Benoît Hamon. Public endorsement by the unpopular Hollande could be “the kiss of death” for Macron, says Dabi.
Dabi disagrees with analysts who say Le Pen has a 30-40 per cent chance of winning. He disputes recent statements by Hollande and others that her support is underestimated. Le Pen is extremely unlikely to become France’s next president, Dabi argues.
"The FN hasn't won a two-round election in 30 years, because they barely broaden their core base in the second round," Dabi explains. "Mobilisation against the FN isn't anything like what it was when Jacques Chirac defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen, by 82 per cent to 18 per cent, in 2002. But it still exists. A Le Pen victory is possible, but not likely."