Leading article: The most crucial contest for a generation

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France's presidential campaign seems to have been in progress for months, but it has only begun officially this week. The pace now becomes frenetic, as candidates criss-cross the country. Posters, election broadcasts and mass rallies now all come into play.

Of the 12 candidates registered, only four have a chance of reaching the second round. The others, representing the further reaches of left and right, the urban and rural, can be enjoyed as features of the rich landscape of French politics. Their only bearing on the first-round result will be in the votes they deflect from the main candidates. The bitter lesson of five years ago, when too many Socialist voters stayed at home, propelling the far-right candidate into the second round, has probably been learnt. We suspect fewer voters will select the "exotic" options on 22 April.

But it is not only the wrenching experience of five years ago that defines this election. After 12 years under Jacques Chirac, France stands at a crossroads, and voters know that. They are disillusioned, but unsure of how France needs to change. They are treating this election with deadly seriousness. This is the other reason why there may be fewer "exotic" votes. It is also why so many - almost 40 per cent - say that even at this late stage they have not yet made their choice.

The two frontrunners offer a classic mainstream left-right duel, of the sort France has long experience. But both have flaws. Nicolas Sarkozy, who leads the pack for the centre-right UMP, is seen even by some of those inclined to vote for him as high-risk, impetuous and potentially divisive, not necessarily presidential material. Ségolène Royal, in second place, has made mistakes that seem to call her competence into question. Her party is divided, some of her ideas are fuzzy and polls are inconclusive about France's attitude towards a female candidate.

Dissatisfaction with these two candidates opens the door a little further for François Bayrou and Jean-Marie Le Pen. M. Bayrou, a veteran politician from the small centrist UDF, has cast himself, with unexpected success, as the outsider and natural alternative. M. Le Pen, the old warhorse of the National Front, sees his poll numbers boosted with each new incident of racial tension. It is not at all certain that even the experience of five years ago inoculated French voters against his charms.

This is the most keenly contested presidential election in France for a generation. It is also, arguably, the most crucial, with implications not just for France, but for bilateral relations, the future of Europe and the transatlantic alliance. We look forward to a contest that lives up to the billing.