French voters haven't been as excited as this for years. Twenty-six years in fact, since the Socialists of François Mitterrand swept to power in 1981. As Jacques Chirac, a man who has dominated the political landscape for decades, bows out, a new generation beckons. In their different ways, Nicolas Sarkozy of the UMP party of the centre right and the Socialist Party's Ségolène Royal presage a new start. This leaves the people expectant and nervous, as they confront globalisation and economic liberalism, words that until now have spelt only gloom for France. They are looking to the candidates to lead them out of this crisis, all the while fearing the solutions which may be proposed to them.
France needs far-reaching reforms to boost growth, tackle unemployment, reduce the national debt and reform the welfare state. At the start of the presidential election campaign, the two main candidates started to mobilise the country in support of reform, seeking to adapt the more positive aspects of Anglo-Saxon practice to French conditions. But, as the battle intensified, Royal and even the more instinctively pro-market Sarkozy have fallen back on the rhetoric of anti-liberalism and nationalism. (Royal has taken to playing "La Marseillaise" at her rallies and calling on families to hoist the flag on national holidays.) Their efforts have done nothing to reas sure. Just as the campaign seemed to be settling into the predictable two-horse race, the arrival of "the third man", François Bayrou, has galvanised it. Bayrou, with his small UDF party behind him, has harnessed voters' distaste for the dominance of the two blocs. Unlike Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front - still a threat - Bayrou's pitch is centrist and non-controversial. Living in a small village in the south-west, Bayrou espouses a disdain for Parisian elitist values, reflecting an increasing scepticism among voters, particularly among the bourgeoisie, about the uncosted promises of Ségo and Sarko.
These voters suspect that, whoever wins, they will enact some of the reforms they have refused to contemplate during the latter stages of the campaign. Certain laws and regulations, from the 35-hour working week to the 2,700-page Code du Travaille, are clung to as proof of a more civilised society. Yet many are beginning to doubt they can be sustained. Voters know that France cannot opt out of globalisation and that the two main candidates are not being straight with them.
Is the emergence of Bayrou a one-off, or does it represent a longer-term move away from the traditional left-right battleground in French politics? For the past 30 years, the Socialists and the Gaullist party, which widened to include centrists and liberals with the creation of the UMP in 2002, have dominated the scene. These "presidential parties" have benefited from the constitutional changes that have increased the powers of the president of the republic as head of the executive.
The electorate faces a choice not just of competing manifestos, but of candidates with intriguingly diverse per sonalities. In the early part of her campaign, Royal talked of "doing politics differently", not just by virtue of her gender, in a profession dominated by men. Her strategy has been to tour the country, speaking directly to the people in town meetings or market squares, presenting herself less as a political leader and more as a mother, an elected representative from among the people, in touch with rural areas and far removed from Parisian bureaucracies - in other words, an ordinary Frenchwoman. Her message: I am seeking power not because of any personal superiority, in-depth knowledge of business, experience of government, or a detailed manifesto. Instead, I am close to "ordinary people" and can talk about politics in a way that reflects people's "real-life experiences".
Royal has imported a distinctly Anglo-Saxon "life politics" on to the French stage. Her emphasis on family values, discipline, authority and the protection of children, rather than on grandiose themes such as international or economic policy, have given her a particular political identity. This initially brought her popularity and recognition, but much of this has been replaced by doubt and no little disdain. Many activists in her own party are among the most scornful. They liken her motto of "famille, travaille et patrie" to "Vichy values". They then apply the worst insult of all - Blairite - to what they see as her insincerity and lack of political vision. Or does this simply boil down to something else - misogyny?
View of authority
Sarkozy has a profile that is almost diametrically the opposite. In the tradition of the Gaullist right, he stresses an old-fashioned view of authority. For him, the imposition of a leader's will is the very principle of politics. This must be incarnated in a president who shows the way and proposes solutions. His rhetoric is sprinkled with the vocabulary of "I believe", "I propose", "I want", "I do not accept" and even "I affirm".
In policy terms, Sarkozy bases much of his appeal on a tough approach to law and order, which brought him to prominence as interior minister. But with each incident, such as when a scuffle in the ticket office of the Gare du Nord in Paris turned into a full-scale riot, some are beginning to wonder whether Sarko's heavy-handed approach to race relations has not backfired. The candidate has already been forced to cancel a number of campaign rallies in the suburbs. On the economy, Sarkozy has hinted at the need for change, while asserting that none of this would threaten the social protection that underpins French life.
Europe is one area that unites the candidates, but intriguingly not in the way one has come to expect. Both Sarko and Ségo campaigned for a Yes vote in the referendum campaign for the EU's Constitutional Treaty in 2005. The defeat not only set back European integration, but it instilled a new French version of Euroscepticism to the project. From the start of her campaign, Royal has contrasted a vision of Europe as "a simple free trade zone where each country tries to compete with the others by lowering taxes and social benefits, even if this means destroying social cohesion" with her vision of a Europe "cemented together by common values and a common desire that the richer countries pull the less well-off upwards". Europe, she has declared, "does not protect. It is an area where vulnerability is the rule. Let us not leave the concept of Europe to the economic liberals, they will use it badly."
Not to be outdone, Sarkozy has said the EU "too often gives the impression that it is the Trojan horse of globalisation at the very moment when our fellow citizens have never felt a stronger need to preserve their national identity." Bayrou has added his voice to the critics who say that the text of the treaty is both unreadable and ultra-liberal. Thus, in spite of the push by Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel to revive the treaty, without support from any of France's major players, it is a dead duck. So, bizarrely reminiscent of the last British general election, but for opposite reasons, Europe is seen as a troublesome issue that is best left alone in the campaign.
So who will win the 2007 election? When Ségolène Royal was triumphantly chosen by the Socialist Party last November, she seemed a good bet. But her campaign has been hit by a series of elementary failures: a delay in getting going, a lack of precise and credible policies, and a series of trips abroad remembered only for gaffes. These include praising China's justice system, praising independence for Quebec, falling for a hoax about Corsica from a radio chat-show host, and having no idea how many nuclear submarines France possesses.
Her troubles in rallying around the faithful have not been helped by her somewhat ambiguous relations with her husband, François Hollande, who also happens to be party chairman. Polls currently give her around a 25 per cent share in the first round, suggesting she would be comfortably defeated in the second round by Sarkozy. That is, if she made it through to the second round. If Bayrou holds on to his surge of support during the past couple of weeks of the campaign, he could spring the same kind of surprise as Le Pen did to Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate, in 2002. The chances are slim, but surprises cannot be ruled out.
If this did come to pass, the Socialists would then be plunged again into a crisis perhaps even deeper than last time. Then, they consoled themselves that they had mistakenly opted for an orthodox "elephant" as their candidate, who had failed to connect. But it now seems that a younger, more dynamic, choice has had it no easier. If Bayrou does make it through to the second round, it is not impossible that he could defeat Sarkozy, taking most of the redundant Socialist votes with him. From that point, France would be in uncharted water. The confusion would increase in the months after, as Bayrou's UDF party would struggle to gain a meaningful number of seats in elections for the Assemblée Nationale (parliament) in June. Thus a president, whose appeal would be almost exclusively personal, would have a flimsy power base. The Fifth Republic would be undermined and France would stumble into a major crisis.
It is not just race relations, or the economy, or France's relations with Europe and the outside world that hinge on these elections. It is the political system itself. No wonder voters, this time, are taking notice.
Gérard Grunberg is deputy director of the Institut d'Études Politiques (Sciences-Po) in Paris
French presidential elections: 10 things you need to know
Unless a candidate wins more than 50% of the votes on 22 April, the top two will go head to head in another vote on 6 May.
Voting is strictly pen-free. Voters pick a slip with the name of their candidate.
To stand, a candidate requires the support of 500 elected officials from at least 30 departments; 12 candidates are standing this year.
Campaign spending is capped at €13.7m (£9.3m) for the first round and €18.3m for the second.
Corporations cannot fund campaigns. Personal donations cannot exceed €4,574.
The president has been popularly elected since 1962. Before this, an electoral college chose the winner.
Expect a far closer second ballot than 2002 when Chirac beat Le Pen with a record-breaking 82%.
French TV and radio must give each of the 12 candidates equal airtime.
The president chooses the prime minister, commands the armed forces and can dissolve parliament.
There's more to come - France's parliamentary elections take place in June.
Research by Sarah O'Connor