As official campaigning for what the French call la Présidentielle began a day after Easter, polls showed more than 40 percent of voters undecided. The race is close between the top three: Nicholas Sarkozy on the right, Ségolène Royal on the left, and surprise latecomer François Bayrou in the center.
The April 22 vote will likely lead to a May run-off. Issues dominating the race include immigration and unemployment, which is 10 percent countrywide but more than double that among restive youths. Sarkozy has the best ideas, but none of the three candidates would reform France dramatically, says Sally McNamara, a European affairs analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
On the economy and France's slipping world influence, McNamara says, "There's a lack of realization about how bad things are and how badly things need to be turned around. . . . The (French) want job security, not employment security." So far, lively personalities have overshadowed issues during the campaign.
Frontrunner Sarkozy has a common touch even as he rankles his plentiful critics. Unlike most of France's political elites, he worked through law school and is not a product of France's École nationale d'administration, which grooms the country's political elites.
"I'm told I frighten people," says the son of a Greek-Jewish mother and a Hungarian aristocrat father who fled Communism. If so, it's because the 52-year-old center-right candidate has earned a tough-guy image on crime as France's interior minister.
After the shooting of an 11-year-old boy in one of Paris' poor suburbs two years ago, Sarkozy said he would like to clean out the housing projects with a Kärcher-a brand of high-pressure water hose. The French also remember him for calling disaffected youth "rabble," right before mostly Muslim immigrants rioted for weeks in 2005.
Still, he has grown popular with his policies of increasing police patrols and releasing crime statistics. He also advocates tighter immigration, which has earned him comparisons to far-right nativist Jean-Marie Le Pen, though Le Pen has scoffed at Sarkozy as an immigrant element. Sarkozy, the father of three, entered politics 30 years ago as a baby-faced protégé of Jacques Chirac, and set his sights early on the Elysée Palace.
Ségolène Royal, 52, is the Socialist Party choice and mother of four, and she has styled herself as the candidate of change. She would be France's first female president, and took some sniping even from her male party colleagues for it. "Who will look after the children?" one Socialist rival said.
Royal and Sarkozy share one thing: Both had fathers who abandoned them. At 19, Royal took hers to court to make him pay support to her mother, who had left him by that time. Her frequent references to male chauvinism in politics have been a sympathy-grabber, though her equally frequent foreign-policy gaffes make some wonder if she is ready for prime time.
Most notably last December, Royal failed to challenge a Hezbollah lawmaker in Lebanon who accused Israel of "Nazism." She has called Sarkozy an "American neo-conservative carrying a French passport." In February she unveiled a 100-point, reliably leftist program unlikely to help France's stagnant economy. It includes increasing pensions and guaranteeing jobs or further training within six months for new college graduates.
In contrast to Sarkozy and Royal, François Bayrou is a quiet policy intellectual from the Union for French Democracy (UDF). The father of six styles himself as the alternative to establishment candidates and the one who can bridge the gap between right and left. His background as a tractor-driving farmer's son from France's southwest evokes for some a purer, rural French identity.
If Bayrou makes it to the second round, the Heritage Foundation's McNamara says, he might well win the whole race.