The final round of the French presidential election, scheduled for April 24, is shaping up to be a much closer contest than it was five years ago, when Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen by more than 30 percentage points. As to why it is harder to predict the outcome this time, it is important to understand both candidates' strategies and the dynamics that have been at play in the run-up to this year's vote.
Ms Le Pen's success in reaching the runoff after a strong first-round showing last weekend has surprised many, given that only a few months ago she had faced a stiff challenge from Eric Zemmour, a fellow polemicist and far-right figure. The two had been neck-and-neck in early polling and many leading figures, including Ms Le Pen's niece, Marion Marechal, had left her National Rally party to support Mr Zemmour, a former journalist. But at a time when she seemed more isolated than ever, she made the astute choice of reaching out to France's working classes and talking about bread-and-butter issues. Instead of simply banging on about migrants entering the country and its minorities being different from "native" French people – constant refrains in her political discourse over the years – she focused on the rising cost of living.
This strategy has paid off, as she secured 23.2 per cent of the national vote in the first round – second only to Mr Macron's 27.9 per cent – while Mr Zemmour fetched just 7.1 per cent.
Ms Le Pen's success can be attributed partly to her presentation of herself as ideologically unclassifiable. She has talked about "migratory submersion" – a euphemism for what she views to be excessive immigration – and her programme remains very much of the right, but one could argue that she is no longer beholden to any one political ideology or believes in anything save for her own personal destiny. Her proposed solutions to some of the country's economic problems are decidedly left-wing, including her pitch for a stronger welfare state, which prompted Mr Zemmour to call her a "socialist". He may have had a point, yet it was he who lost in the end.
Mr Zemmour's mistake was to believe that in order to win the presidency, it was necessary to offer voters a clear, if rigid, ideological framework. But not only did his constant harking back to the country's past betray a lack of understanding of contemporary France, his perspective appeared disingenuous as well. They are so extreme at times that many voters suspect they are more talk than walk.
In one sense, Ms Le Pen should credit Mr Macron for her impressive run, having borrowed generously from the latter's 2017 playbook by building a more broad-based coalition this time.
Ms Le Pen's base is, unsurprisingly, comprised largely of the lower socio-economic strata of French society. While she hasn't been able to rally all of the country's working classes, she has attracted the less-educated sections of the population with low or average incomes and who live in regions currently undergoing de-industrialisation. She has also drawn support from the country's south, home to the generally conservative "pieds noirs", people of French and other European origins who were born in Algeria during the period of French rule from 1830 to 1962.
Despite Ms Le Pen's strengths, however, Mr Macron remains a formidable candidate.
Apart from his advantage as the incumbent, the President recently secured much-needed endorsements from a number of his rivals in the race after they were eliminated after the first round. Clearly, there continue to be concerns across the political spectrum about the direction in which a "President Le Pen" could take France.
Mr Macron, though, faces a number of hurdles and cannot rely on endorsements alone to win. For one, he is obviously not the same politician he was in 2017. Back then, he was a young and exciting upstart. Now, he is the face of the establishment, and facing the headwinds of anti-incumbency. His voters have changed, too: his base is much older today, and belongs to the upper crust of French society. They have high incomes, live in big cities and mostly reside in the country's relatively well-off western region.
To his advantage, in the first round, Mr Macron managed to corral votes from the traditional centre-left and centre-right wings of the polity, both of which have been hollowed out in recent years. That the Socialist Party candidate garnered only 1.8 per cent of the vote and the centre-right Republican candidate finished with just 4.8 per cent speak to an ongoing churn in French politics.
An endorsement from former president Nicolas Sarkozy, a centre-right politician, will further burnish the current incumbent's credentials with that section's supporters, but that also means the President risks being pigeon-holed as the poster child of the "bourgeois bloc".
The country's minorities, particularly its Muslim population, will undoubtedly vote, by and large, for Mr Macron. But given they are just 8 per cent of the total population and represent only about 3 per cent of the registered voters, they are unlikely to swing the election in his favour.
Having secured the centre but unlikely to win the far right, which Ms Le Pen has virtually locked up, Mr Macron will need to clinch the far-left vote, which went to Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round, if he wants to win the runoff.
Mr Melenchon endorsed Mr Macron, and made a passionate plea to his supporters to do their bit to ensure Ms Le Pen does not win. Yet, in order to excite this section of the electorate, which is young and better-educated, the President may need to find a way reinvent himself – as he himself acknowledged he needed to do last week. More importantly, he will be required to convince them that he remains the best person to tackle issues that they care about, such as climate change. Mr Macron has often talked the talk on the environment, but his record on climate mitigation remains spotty. Will the left give him a second chance? It is genuinely hard to say.
One thing is for sure: whoever wins on April 24 will have a number of difficult issues to grapple with from the get-go: France's place in Europe, the war in Ukraine, the Covid-19 pandemic and Paris's energy policy and defence posture, among others. There is also the question of how to increase ordinary people's purchasing power while reducing the strain on public finances. None of these are easy questions to answer.
And finally, given the extent to which political polarisation has occurred in France, the biggest challenge for the next leader will be to unite the nation and ensure that no one is left behind. This is, of course, easier said than done.