Topsy-turvy French election has more surprises in store
A French presidential campaign that has so far been filled with twists and turns still has surprises in store heading into Sunday's first-round vote.
With voters in rebellious mood and many still hesitant about their choices, the identities of the two candidates who will progress to a winner-takes-all May 7 run-off remain anyone's guess.
With 11 contenders - from far-Left to far-Right - for the 47 million registered voters to choose from, the election is a high-stakes test for the EU and for populist leaders who would tear it down.
Like Donald Trump in the United States, anti-establishment French populists Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon hope for an electoral shock by surfing to power on voter disgust with 'politics as usual'.
Failure by both to qualify for round two would signal a receding of the populist wave that crashed over the EU with Brexit.
The months-long French campaign has only seemed to grow weirder and more uncertain as polling day approaches.
A jobs-for-the-family financial scandal that punctured the 'Mr Clean' image of one-time front-runner Francois Fillon fuelled the raging distrust between voters and their elected representatives.
The siren call of Ms Le Pen's "France first" nationalist rhetoric and Mr Melenchon's late surge, leave Europe's second-largest country and third-biggest economy at a crossroads, with its future in the EU up for grabs.
The implosion of the ruling Socialist Party, with outgoing president Francois Hollande too unpopular to run again, and the stunning success of his former economy minister Emmanuel Macron with an upstart middle-way grassroots campaign without major party backing, threaten to dismantle post-war France's traditional left-right political divide.
The threat of Islamic extremism that killed more than 230 people in two years and yesterday's fatal shooting of a policeman mean the vote is being held under tight security.
With the race too close to call, hesitant voters are agonising over whether to follow their hearts or their heads in the first round, meaning either backing their candidate of choice or casting a strategic vote aimed at keeping out candidates they do not want to have to choose between on May 7.
The nightmare scenario for global financial markets is a second-round duel between the equally sharp-tongued Ms Le Pen and Mr Melenchon. Victory for either could, in the wake of the Brexit vote, deliver a knock-out punch to the European project.
Like her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2002, Ms Le Pen hopes for an electoral coup by making the run-off. But pollsters suggest that, like him, she would likely lose on May 7 to any of the other top three opponents.
Voting stations open at 8am on Sunday, with initial TV projections of the outcome expected some 12 hours later, followed by official results.