The French election campaign has come to life with a fierce war of words between the far-right candidates, Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, that damages the chances of either replacing Emmanuel Macron as president.
Gilbert Collard, a member of European parliament and former French MP who switched camps to become a key aide to Mr Zemmour, accuses Marine Le Pen of “spitting bile” after she said her rival’s party was a melting pot of “traditionalist Catholics, pagans and a few Nazis”.
Mr Collard, who previously belonged to Ms Le Pen’s National Rally party, said she was stooping to the same insults she had long endured. Even before defecting to Mr Zemmour’s Reconquest party, he had mocked her strategy of “detoxification” as a “mug’s game” that implied her party had something to be ashamed of.
Ms Le Pen was quickly losing supporters, he said, and would end up as president of SOS Racisme, an anti-racist movement despised by the far right.
He told The National her comments, along with a leftward drift on economic policies, reinforced Mr Zemmour’s claims to be the strongest challenger.
Mr Macron remains favourite to win a second term, with 24 per cent of first-round voting intentions. Mr Zemmour and Ms Le Pen, locked together on 14 per cent, trail the centre-right candidate Valerie Pecresse, who overtook both to reach 16.5 per cent.
Mr Macron has yet to declare himself as candidate, though few doubt he will stand, and has remained aloof of the early skirmishes. Instead he has nurtured an image for statesmanship, securing meetings with the Russian and Ukrainian leaders, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and later claiming to have defused tensions.
But opinion polls consistently show that domestic concerns — the cost of living, crime and immigration — weigh on voters' minds more than the foreign policy.
While Mr Macron portrays himself as tough on Islamism, the far right say he is weak on radicalisation and insecurity, which it blames on his failure to control immigration.
Mr Zemmour, an anti-Islam polemicist, is seen as even further to the right than Ms Le Pen.
He talks of a “great replacement”, a conspiracy theory that sees Muslims overwhelming the indigenous French. He lost no time in exploiting the plight of a French TV reporter, Ophelie Meunier, now under police protection after receiving death threats having presented a documentary on radicalisation.
“Ophelie Meunier is in mortal danger,” Mr Zemmour said on Twitter. “This is what happens when you show the French the Islamisation of our country.“
Despite widely varying degrees of anti-Islam sentiment, the combined support for candidates of broadly rightwing ideology suggests that if at least two were to bury differences, Mr Macron would face a serious threat.
Mr Collard insisted that even without an alliance, Mr Zemmour would reach the decisive second round and go on to win.
“Like Mr Zemmour, I want union of the right,” he said. “There is no reason the right cannot go to the second round. For that to happen and to win the presidency, there has to be someone — male or female — of energy, ability and vision to unite voters.
“Eric Zemmour is that person: he has political, historical and oratorical courage.
“Over the years I have attended the rallies of all the great speakers of French politics and have never seen anyone inspire such spontaneous fervour as he does."
Christele Lagier, lecturer in political science at the University of Avignon and an authority on far-right movements, believes the presence of two warring populist candidates not only puts the presidency out of reach to them but makes it less likely either can even reach the run-off.
“The far right's electoral potential is about 25 per cent,” she told The National. “Contrary to comments on the inevitable progression of this potential, the sociological studies I have conducted for 15 years show it cannot be seen as infinite.”
She cited volatility among the far-right electorate and research showing more people are likely to abstain than cast tactical votes. “As a result, two candidacies from the far right reduce the possibility of this political family qualifying for the second round.”
She felt Mr Macron would attract centre-right voters in a decider against Mr Zemmour or Ms Le Pen because his presidency “has not given them reason to worry that he is as a dangerous leftist”.
Ms Lagier said France’s conservatism meant it was “probably not” ready for a first female president. But Ms Pecresse benefited from the concept of “loyalty to the leader” and her own status as a political professional belonging to the economic elite.
France goes to the polls on April 10 with the decider two weeks later.
Despite delaying an announcement on his intentions, Mr Macron leads the field in the number of sponsorships received. He already has more than 900 signatures from elected officials with only Ms Pecresse and the socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, securing the minimum 500.