There is something very dispiriting, for a Francophile like me – who also wants to believe in the power of politics to make change for the better – to be in France right now.
Most depressing of all is the refrain heard so often it makes you want to scream, that there is no point voting because 'they're all the same, they're all in it for themselves.' Even if the second part of that were true – and both right-wing candidate Francois Fillon and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen haven't exactly helped, what with French State funds channelled to non-working Fillon family members, and Le Pen campaign coffers swelled by Russia – how can anyone look at the 11 candidates on offer and say 'they're all the same'? How can anyone look at Brexit, or Trump – most French people I meet seem to think both are unmitigated disasters – and still say that voting never changes anything?
In towns and villages all over France right now, the official poster sites are up, with the 11 official photos, and the 11 slogans, alongside each other. In truth, seven of the 11 know they have no chance whatever of winning, but with the mainly single figure percentages they will take, they can still affect the outcome for the four with a genuine chance of becoming President. These are Le Pen, Fillon, centrist Emmanuel Macron, and Jean-Luc Melenchon, the hard-left veteran who has eclipsed the official candidate of the Parti Socialiste, Benoit Hamon. His campaign seems to have imploded after all the ups and mainly downs of the Hollande era.
French media and politicians have always paid far too much attention to polls, but the poll that caught my eye is the one suggesting as many as 14m people, a third of those eligible, won't bother to vote in protest at 'politics as normal' or will deliver a blank ballot paper. There is a campaign to portray abstention as 'a positive vote,' and apathy as a new 'movement of hope.'
I cannot help thinking many of these proud abstainers will be the first to shout and scream if they wake up in a few weeks' time with a hard-right President Le Pen or a hard-left President Melenchon sending a very strange message to the world indeed.
When I saw on the news last night a young man saying he didn't think Melenchon could win, but he was voting for him because he thought there needed to be a 'real choice' against Le Pen in the second round, I had flashbacks to those who supported Jeremy Corbyn's nomination to get him on the ballot for the Labour leadership. Look where that has got us. In fact Corbyn's politics are closer to Hamon – and both have put their appeal to activists ahead of any strategy for the public. Melenchon is well to the left of both, and with some pretty dubious views to match. He is fortunate that France has always seemed more forgiving of extremist populism of the left than it is of the right.
To those new to the French system – the first round takes place this Sunday, and if, (as is inevitable) no single candidate wins a majority, the top two go head to head in a second round on May 7. Those two will almost certainly come from Le Pen, Fillon, Macron and Melenchon.
There are two conventional wisdoms. One is that Le Pen is certain to get through to the second round. The other is that whoever she is up against she will lose in May. Supporters of this particular conventional wisdom recall the 82.2%-17.8% victory for Jacques Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, when Le Pen senior won his way to the second round but provoked people of all political persuasion and none to come out and stop him.
It was Barack Obama's strategist, David Axelrod, who said that 'the thing about conventional wisdoms is that they are almost always wrong.' It was a conventional wisdom that Remain would beat Leave, and Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump. This time in France, precisely because of the anti-politics mood; the relative success Marine Le Pen has had in decontaminating the FN brand somewhat by distancing herself from her father; and because abstention is likely to help her most – the conventional wisdom that France will never elect a Le Pen as President cannot be guaranteed.
That might especially be the case if Fillon makes it through to the second round alongside her, as he might be deemed far too right wing for left-wingers who were prepared to support Chirac a decade and a half ago, and who would add to second round abstentionism. Melenchon's positions: anti-EU and Germany, anti-Nato, but pro some of the wilder forms of socialism in Latin America, might seem less attractive when there is a chance of them actually being implemented, and Le Pen suddenly contrives to appear almost moderate by comparison.
None of the four has been able to build a sense of unstoppable momentum with a few days to go to the first round. Fillon, his expenses scandal under formal investigation, ought to be dead and buried, and I think if he were British or German, he would be by now. But we said the same about all the scandals that hit Trump on the way to the White House.
Conventional wisdom would have said that Fillon, Le Pen and Melenchon ought all to have been damaged by their closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who collects hard right and hard left sympathisers like other rich men collect watches. Le Pen even looked like a puppet when she was invited to the Kremlin. But Putin's interference in the US elections didn't stop Trump, and there appears to be similar shoulder shrugging about his attempted interference here, as he seeks to undermine the EU, and indeed any international alliance that might not share his view that the world should be controlled, and shared out, by strong men leaders like him, Trump, Xi, Erdogan.
Trump's Putin links may yet bring him down. But it says something very strange about the way the advanced democracies have developed that the Americans are not really up in arms about Russia's interference in their race to the White House, and that of the four front-runners for the Elysee, only one, Emmanuel Macron, is not closely linked in some way to Putin.
If Macron fails, by this Sunday France could be down to the most bizarre electoral choice it has ever faced – Le Pen v Fillon, (hard-right v not quite so hard-right) or Le Pen v Melenchon (a choice of extremes)
If France really is yearning for 'something different', this is one of many differences with the others that Macron ought to be able to use to his advantage. His relative youth is another. So is the fact that he is unashamedly 'neither left nor right.' His opponents present his age – 39 – as being too young to be President, and his 'neither left nor right' positioning as exactly that, positioning.
Macron started his 'En Marche' party just over a year ago, so were he to win it would be a remarkable rise for the young former minister, who resigned because he felt President Hollande's reforms were not going far enough. The signs are he is the one the others feel they have to stop, and on Monday [17 April] he went out and pre-empted an attack he warned was about to be launched against him, that he has a secret offshore tax haven. 'Fake news,' he insists, (and who knows if it has come via Russia?) but if so, it was clearly designed to draw attention to his wealth as a former banker, and play into the idea that they are 'all the same.' There is very much a 'no smoke without fire' mood to the electorate, who seem prepared to believe the worst about anyone.
Macron has less than a week to show that he is the 'something different' France says it wants; that his youth means the dynamism and energy France needs, and his centrist policies, not the extremes of the others, are the only way to get the economy going and rebuild France's greatness; that his status as the most pro-EU candidate is the only realistic viable option for France's economic success, that isolation will hurt France even more than Brexit will hurt Britain. If he fails, by this Sunday France could be down to the most bizarre electoral choice it has ever faced – Le Pen v Fillon, (hard-right v not quite so hard-right) or Le Pen v Melenchon (a choice of extremes). The future of Europe, already reeling from Brexit, will look ever more uncertain and unstable, and Putin's smile will widen a little more.
Alastair Campbell is a British strategist and writer, best known for his work as Director of Communications and Strategy for Prime Minister Tony Blair. He is the author of 12 books and Ambassador for mental health campaign Time to Change. Follow : @campbellclaret