Elections: France faces remarkable moment as Le Pen and Macron may be in run-off

Mark Stone, Europe Correspondent

The French centre-right is in self-destruct mode. Back in December, it all looked so different.

In a US-style 'primary', Republican Party voters surprised everyone by choosing the so-called 'third man' as their candidate for President.

Francois Fillon was picked instead of Alain Juppe and Nicholas Sarkozy. Mr Juppe had been the favourite and if not him then Mr Sarkozy.

But both of them carry significant baggage. Mr Juppe is a convicted fraudster and Mr Sarkozy is under investigation for misuse of funds.

:: Who is Francois Fillon?

So they chose Mr Fillon, scandal-free and, with policies further to the right of Mr Juppe or Mr Sarkozy, he seemed to be the best foil for Marine Le Pen on the far-right.

Then came 'Penelope-Gate' - the allegation that Mr Fillon paid his wife Penelope and his children for parliamentary jobs they allegedly didn't do.

For over a month, he has fought the allegations with an ever more remarkable defiance.

Several times, the expectation has been that he would stand aside under the pressure.

:: What you need to know about the French elections, and why

A weekend rally in central Paris was seen as a make-or-break moment - senior party insiders watched the crowd size and the fluctuating polls. Should they ditch their man and replace him so close to the election?

And if so then with whom? Mr Juppe has made quite clear 'once and for all' that he will not stand. "I'm not capable of doing what's necessary, rallying people around a unifying project," he said.

Steadily, Mr Fillon's poll ratings have slipped and his staff have quit. He is currently not expected to make it into the second round of the election. The beneficiaries are centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen who are most likely to fight out the run-off.

This is a remarkable moment for France and a potentially very destabilising one for Europe.

For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, it's likely that both of the main parties, the Socialists and the Republicans who have dominated politics here for decades, will be knocked out in the first round.

Mr Macron's grassroots 'En Marche!' and Ms Le Pen's once unelectable 'Front National' are the frontrunners.

:: Who is Emmanuel Macron?

Mr Fillon was once the favourite for President. But his scandal keeps the race wide open.

If Ms Le Pen wins, profound change for Europe follows. She is protectionist, anti-EU and supported by Russia.

She also offers hopeful change for a growing proportion of the electorate who wouldn't consider themselves traditionally 'far-right' but who are fed up with the mainstream. She's worth the risk. Sound familiar? Plenty of Trump voters thought the same.

My prediction? I don't think she'll win.

:: Who is Marine Le Pen?

However, I do think the liberal-leaning urban 'elite' underestimate how many French people believe she has sanitised the party and that 'Le Pen' is no longer synonymous with racism or xenophobia. Perhaps a critical number are willing to give her a shot.

Mr Juppe said on Monday 'France is ill'. The economy is flatlining and has been for a decade.

Unemployment is at 10.5% (compared with Germany - 4.7%, UK - 5.4%). Youth unemployment is at a staggering 24%. The jitters of terror linger - France is still in a 'state of emergency'.

In that context, never say never Marine Le Pen.

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