It’s an election to fundamentally re-shape France’s prosperity and role in the world.
Until a few months ago, centre-right candidate François Fillon was a virtual shoo-in for becoming France’s next president, after defeating Marine Le Pen in all likelihood by a large margin.
Yet after the fake jobs scandal involving his wife, Fillon’s poll ratings went into free fall and threw the door open for some outside bets to make real progress in the popularity stakes, changing the dynamics of France’s presidential elections to an open race like never before.
In previous French elections, you could have talked confidently of a battle between the two traditional parties of the centre-left and centre-right.
Now the political discourse has changed to extreme left, extreme right and centrist, leaving the contest wide open and unpredictable until the very end. Pollsters reckon the choice of which way to take France next has left around 40% of French people undecided in the final days before Sunday’s first round.
France’s two-round system allows voters to be both ideologically rebellious and politically pragmatic. Sunday’s first round will be fodder for French people who want to protest about immigration, the economy, unemployment and punish the political class.
The second round, however, and the two week interim period, marks a shift in tone and political debate. This is ultimately about making a president, and rhetoric starts to feel a lot more real and serious.
It’s precisely why Marine Le Pen is leading most polls for the first round, before plummeting in the second. Her hardline policies on immigration, the euro and identity still remain in the minority, believe it or not.
The outcome of this election will re-shape France profoundly. The size of its unwieldy state is likely to be the biggest victim – job cuts and downsizing are to come.
Growth will be one of the first action points. Reactivating France’s sclerotic economy and bringing down unemployment, as well as how freely businesses run.
But it will be internationally that France has most to gain. Its standing will be shaped by precisely how pro- or anti-EU its next president leans. By extension, it will define the future of the EU and the euro currency, and perhaps how hard or soft Brexit will be.
It’s why – through a mixture of lucky timing and sheer ingenuity – that unashamedly pro-Europe, pro-tough reform medicine candidate Emmanuel Macron has all the makings of France’s next president.