Sunday’s first round vote of voting is not make or break. Far from it. It’s almost certain that it will be President Sarkozy and his socialist rival Francois Hollande going through to the run-off in two weeks time.
So does it matter who comes out on top at this stage? For Sarkozy yes, because if he is going to pull this election out of the fire he desperately needs some momentum.
A convincing win on Sunday might give him that, anything less and he is struggling.
The polls don’t make particularly encouraging reading for him - the Sarko-surge of a couple of weeks ago seems to be running out of steam, leaving the two front-runners within a point or two of each other, with the far-right’s Marine Le Pen and the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon scrapping over a distant third place.
And when the pollsters ask about the head-to-head second round it still looks like a comfortable win for the challenger, ahead by anything up to 12 points. Even for a campaigner with the energy and skill of Sarkozy, that gap is going to take some closing.
Hollande addressed his final rally last night. The crowd were excited at the idea of getting the first socialist into the Elysée Palace since François Mitterand, but their enthusiasm was at best polite.
Hollande could never be mistaken for an orator. Roars of enthusiasm were thin on the ground, and when the crowd tried to shout their approval he simply talked through them.
There’s not a lot to get excited about with François Hollande, but he does have one quality that the French seem to love: he’s not Nicolas Sarkozy.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why the French people fell so catastrophically out of love with their President.
He has been both the most popular President in the history of the Fifth Republic and the most unpopular, and sadly for his chances of keeping his job, an approval rating of just 34% has him still near the bottom of that scale.
The French knew when they elected him that he was going to be different, that he didn’t like wine, smelly cheese or truffles, that he prefers diet Coke and a Havana cigar.
They already referred to him as ‘the American’, and they didn’t mean that as a term of approval or endearment.
They knew that he’d be brash, but the unconventional love life, the showbiz wife, the bling, the wealthy friends, most of all his sheer enjoyment of wealth, have all been too much.
The French expect their President to be both a King and a Prime Minister. Jacques Chirac over-did the King bit, rarely deigning to involve himself in anything as common as actually running the country.
Sarkozy, in contrast, is seen as having robbed the office of its dignity, and it seems the French are not going to forgive him for that.
Getting out of the hole he’s in may be impossible because there are two groups of people Sarkozy needs to win back if he’s to make any sense of the electoral arithmetic.
He needs to keep on board the 15% or so who are voting for the far-right ‘Front National’, while also winning over a substantial number of those voting for the centrist François Bayrou.
It’s reckoned he’ll need about two-thirds of both groups if he’s going to stand a chance, but how can you both move to the right and to the centre?
In contrast Hollande is likely to inherit almost all of the far-left constituency of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Writing off an incumbent is always dangerous: Sarkozy has at his disposal the power of his office and the ability to infulence events, for another fortnight at least, plus the natural inclination among voters to prefer the ‘devil they know’.
He will play, for all he’s worth, on fears that Hollande will reignite the Euro crisis, that he may spook the markets and push France into the same position as Italy and Spain.
But will French fear of the new overwhelm their distaste for the old? At the moment it seems unlikely.