All bar the result was supposed to be cut and dried in next year's French presidential elections. The finalists were guaranteed: Jacques Chirac vs Lionel Jospin; the President vs the Prime Minister; right vs left; Monsieur "Charisma" Chirac (with legal complications) vs Monsieur "Austere" Jospin (with a Trotskyist past).
But in the past few weeks, the inexorable rise of a third candidate has muddled some of the calculations. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a friend of Mr Jospin's for 30 years, has been attracting support from both right and left from the extreme right to the extreme left with a mixture of Euroscepticism, anti-Americanism, nationalism, authoritarianism and old fashioned state interventionism.
The breadth of his support, and his acres of media coverage, led Mr Chevènement, 62, to compare himself this week with Charles de Gaulle: a man of destiny, who could break through the normal barriers of left and right and encapsulate the fears and aspirations of the French nation. He has won the support of ex-Communists and ex-Gaullists and even the endorsement of Pierre Poujade, the 81-year-old leader of a populist, shopkeepers' anti-tax revolt in the 1950s which gave the world a new, political definition, "Poujadism".
Mr Poujade, long-retired from active politics, claims to have picked every presidential winner since 1958. He says the lugubrious, almost Transylvanian-looking Mr Chevènement will be the next French President because he is the only candidate who is neither "corrupt" nor "utopian".
According to the polls, Mr Chevènement is appealing to the old rather than the young; the relatively well-off rather than the rich or the poor; and above all to people employed by the state. He has brought together an odd coalition of those people on both left and right who feel uncomfortable with the 21st century.
Original predictions said the former interior, defence and education minister's maverick campaign would damage the presidential chances of his estranged friend, Mr Jospin. But most of the alarm bells are now ringing in the Elysée Palace, the (perhaps temporary) home of the centre-right President.
Only the top two candidates from a field likely to be a dozen strong go through from the first to the second round of the presidential elections, in late April and early May. The finalists are still likely to be Mr Chirac and Mr Jospin but Mr Chevènement's success especially on the right threatens to confuse the President's chances in the second round.
What if a defeated but third-place "Che" (as the French press calls him) throws his support behind Jospin? Would some of his erstwhile right-wing votes go with him and tilt the victory to the Prime Minister? In the Socialist camp, Mr Chevènement causes a different kind of nightmare. His support is running at about 12 per cent in the polls, compared with six per cent when he launched his campaign in September. Mr Jospin is only at 23 per cent (and President Chirac is at 25 per cent).
What if the economy continues to struggle and the unemployment rate already rising again explodes before April? What if the launch of the euro is a muddle or even a disaster? Both issues could play into the hands of Mr Chevènement. Could he pip Mr Jospin for second place?
Mr Chevènement is hardly a fresh face in French politics. His detractors say he has been on the "wrong side of every argument" in the past 30 years. It was Mr Chevènement who drew up the high-tax and nationalisation plans that almost wrecked the economy between 1981 and 1983. Mr Chevènement supported Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war. He campaigned against the Maastricht treaty and the euro.
But he has re-emerged with an almost messianic energy since a near-death experience during a routine medical operation in 1998 and after his resignation from the Jospin cabinet last year. The political pundits still say Che's strength will wither when Mr Chirac and Mr Jospin begin to campaign in earnest in the New Year. How, they say, can anyone take seriously someone who appeals to the anti-state, anti-tax Poujadistes and yet swears by tax-and-spend economics and the preservation of the centralising powers of the "Republican" French state?Reuse content