With a big helping hand from the Morocco-born far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the favourite to win the elections and evict Nicolas Sarkozy from the Elysée is François Hollande.
Hollande's presidential bid will rely on a revelation from the far-left
MARSEILLE, FRANCE // France is five days from the start of a process that could hand presidential power to the socialists for the first time since 1995, and the middle class and money markets are apprehensive about it.
With a big helping hand from the Morocco-born far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the favourite to win the elections and evict Nicolas Sarkozy from the Elysée is François Hollande, a man with no experience in government office.
Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy are neck and neck in opinion polls for Sunday's first round. But even polls that put the president marginally ahead have his socialist rival romping to victory in the run-off on May 6.
In that second round, the vast majority of voters who now support Mr Mélenchon are expected to switch allegiance to Mr Hollande.
His name is barely known outside France, but Mr Mélenchon has enlivened the bitterly fought election. The dynamism of his campaign has been acclaimed even by voters who would never dream of backing the left.
An education minister until 2002 in France's last socialist government, Mr Mélenchon is the presidential contender for an alliance, including communists, grouped under the Left Party banner. Polls have put him gaining 14 to 15 per cent of the vote, nudging the far-right, anti-immigration candidate, Marine Le Pen, for third place or slightly ahead of her.
In a country that feels let down by successive presidents, Mr Mélenchon's campaign message that urges ordinary people to seize power carries simple appeal.
He is well to the left of Mr Hollande, whose own tax-and-spend programme for boosting the economy, seems positively conservative by comparison.
An employers' think tank estimated Mr Mélenchon's plans - for example, lowering the retirement age to 60 from 62, creating 500,000 creche places and fully reimbursing medical charges - at €74 billion to €131bn (Dh354-626bn). His own supporters accept the figure of €120bn and insist it will be covered by sky-high taxes for the rich and assorted fiscal reforms that employers say will actually destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Mr Mélenchon, a veteran of the student-worker revolt against Charles de Gaulle's presidency in 1968, stands no realistic chance of election. But he is bound to be an irksome thorn in Mr Hollande's side if there's a socialist win.
Morocco was still a French protectorate when Mr Mélenchon was born in Tangier in 1951. He is from classic "pied-noir" stock as the son of a French post office worker and Spanish schoolmistress and describes as a "great wrench" his departure from North Africa for chillier north-western France after his parents divorced.
His pursuit of a radical leftward turn in France frightens middle-income voters but fits his broader wish to rally all left parties to an anti-capitalist cause in a "revolution by the ballot box" reminiscent of Salvador Allende's Chile. Allende nationalised major industries, ordered big blue-collar pay rises and imposed agricultural collectives in his search for "the Chilean path to socialism'" in the early 1970s.
Mr Sarkozy has rallied impressively in recent weeks, but from an apparently hopeless position. He has not quite earned the lasting kudos he might have expected from the strong leadership he showed during and after the series of killings attributed to Mohamed Merah, a self-styled avenger of international Muslim grievances.
This may reflect deep frustration with the economic malaise and the pace of Mr Sarkozy's promised reforms: too slow for those who expected a bold presidency, too fast for those who face working longer before qualifying for full pensions.
The president's allies point to his prominent role in international diplomacy, especially during the Arab Spring.
He took a leading role in championing the rebel cause in Libya and has been a consistent critic of repression in Syria and the nuclear ambitions of Iran, as well as spearheading, with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the battle to save the euro.
Mr Sarkozy has mocked Mr Hollande's lack of global experience, pointing out gleefully that he has never even been to China, one of the world's most important economies.
The socialist retorted in an interview with the newspaper Journal du Dimanche: "The outgoing president's first decisions in this [international] field were anything but happy - the failure of the Mediterranean Union [intended as a bridge between southern Europe and Africa] and receiving Qaddafi in 2007 and Bashar Al Assad in 2008. He said himself he had learnt a lot; I'll try to do it quicker."
But domestic concerns will decide who rules France for the next five years. Mr Sarkozy sounds tough on crime and illegal immigration but his performance is challenged even in these fields.
Persistent rumours linking him to financial scandals and, in particular, the alleged acceptance of unlawful funds for his 2007 presidential campaign sit uneasily — despite indignant denials of wrongdoing — with a commitment to break with France's corrupt past.
For all that, he still looks more presidential than Mr Hollande and few would dismiss out of hand his chances of snatching what would be a remarkable victory. Perhaps his best hope lies in exploiting fear of the left in a last-ditch appeal to the 30 per cent or more of voters who are undecided.