President Nicolas Sarkozy faces an unprecedented humiliation in the French presidential election which will take place in almost exactly 12 months' time, according to new polls.
If the election were held today, almost whatever the match-up of candidates, Mr Sarkozy would become the first sitting President of the Fifth Republic to be eliminated in the first round.
The latest polls also suggest that the resurgence of the far-right National Front under Marine Le Pen is not a passing phenomenon.
In the first round, almost certain to be held on 24 April 2012, Ms Le Pen could easily match, or even exceed, the achievement of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who came second in the first round on 21 April 2002.
Against two of the possible candidates of the main opposition party, the Parti Socialiste, Ms Le Pen is predicted to top the poll. Only Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former Socialist finance minister, now managing director of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, would push Ms Le Pen into second place.
Mr Sarkozy, whose popularity has fallen to record lows, would score no more than 19 to 20 per cent of the first round vote, according to the Harris poll. This would be insufficient to qualify for the second round, except in the unlikely event that the official Socialist candidate is Ségolène Royal, who was the defeated challenger last time.
Only two candidates go forward to the second round. The system was designed to accommodate the traditional bi-polar politics of France, with the major candidates of "right" and left" qualifying for a run-off.
Two factors have combined to confuse the picture next year. There is likely to be a plethora of minor or "nearly" candidates on both the left and the centre-right.
This will reduce the potential first-round score for both Mr Sarkozy and the Socialist candidate, due to be selected at an open primary in October. The second factor is the resurgence of the French far right, under the plausible Marine Le Pen, who has ditched her father's overt xenophobia and obsession with the Second World War in favour of a more moderate, "French first", protectionist and anti-European message. The latest poll suggests that Ms Le Pen would take 21 to 23 per cent of the first-round vote, enough to come first or second against all other likely candidates.
Next year's election could therefore turn into a giant lottery. The winner of the "jackpot" would be the mainstream candidate – either Mr Sarkozy or the Socialist contender – who reaches the second round with Ms Le Pen.
Despite her partially successful efforts to re-brand the NF as a patriotic but not xenophobic party, all polls suggest that she would be comprehensively defeated in the second round.
Mr Sarkozy has tried to counter Ms Le Pen's rise by adopting a harder right, more anti-immigrant position in the past year. The polls suggest that this has been counter-productive, giving centre-right voters an excuse to drift to the far right, rather than attracting NF votes back to the centre.
In recent meetings with parliamentary supporters, President Sarkozy has insisted that all will come good in the end. He intends to attack Ms Le Pen on what he regards as her incoherent social and economic programme which would, in effect, force France to leave the EU.
"She won't stay the course," Mr Sarkozy told supporters at a private meeting last week.
Sources in the Elysée Palace insist that the difference between April 2012 and April 2002 is that, a decade ago, Mr Le Pen's rise to reach the second round went untracked in the polls.
"History will not repeat itself," one official said, "The French have no wish to see the National Front in the second round."
The outcome of the separate Socialist race remains uncertain. The latest Harris poll appears to strengthen the hand of the as-yet-undeclared Mr Strauss-Kahn, who is the only candidate shown reaching 30 per cent in the first round and pushing Ms Le Pen into second place.
However, the poll also confirms the rising popularity of the former Socialist leader, François Hollande (22 per cent), who scores slightly better than the present party first secretary, Martine Aubry (21 per cent).
The runners and riders next spring
Marine Le Pen
Jean-Marie Le Pen's youngest daughter succeeded him as head of the family business in January. As the new president of the National Front, the 42-year-old has set out to "de-demonise" the French far right. Where her father flirted with anti-Semitic themes, she is cracking down on all overt signs of neo-Nazi sympathy in the party. Her programme is an eclectic, populist mixture of left and right: economically interventionist, protectionist, anti-immigrant, anti-European. Polls suggest she may well reach the two-candidate second round next April but cannot hope to be France's first woman president.
Mr Strauss-Kahn, 62 next week, is the runaway favourite to win the open primary of the Parti Socialiste in October and also the favourite to be the next president. But does he want to leave his cushy and influential job as head of the IMF in Washington to jump back into the spin-dryer of French politics? Some Socialists doubt his appetite, or ability, to run a political campaign. Others say he is not a Socialist in any case. There is also talk of skeletons in cupboards. The entry deadline for the Socialist primary – open to all voters who hand over at least €1 and say they support left-wing "values" – is June.
Martine Aubry or François Hollande
If Mr Strauss-Kahn fails to run, the Socialist race is shaping into a straight fight between Ms Aubry, 60, the party's first secretary and mayor of Lille and Mr Hollande, 56, the former first secretary and mayor of Tulle, Limousin. Mr Hollande, who was the partner of Ségolène Royal and has four children with her, was once a rank outsider. He has soared in recent polls to overtake Ms Aubry (the daughter of Jacques Delors) and may even give Mr Strauss-Kahn a run for his money. Ms Aubry is a largely unreconstructed old-style Socialist. Mr Hollande is a thoughtful pragmatist.Reuse content