Marine Le Pen will on Monday night seek to break the glass ceiling in polls currently predicting she stands virtually no chance of becoming France's next president, as the five main candidates spar in an unprecedented televised debate.
While the rivals have been on the road for weeks, the consensus is that France's presidential race starts proper when millions tune in on Monday night at 8.30pm local time to the first of three marathon debates.
These pit Ms Le Pen against Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist frontrunner, conservative nominee François Fillon, Socialist hopeful Benoît Hamon and leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Another six minor candidates have not been invited to speak on private channel TF1, to their fury.
The two-and-a-half-hour debate will focus on three themes: France's social and economic model and its "place in the world".
With 34 days to go before the knockout round of elections, a Kantar Sofres-Onepoint poll out on Monday sees Ms Le Pen on level pegging with Mr Macron on 26 per cent, meaning they stand to reach the run-off.
Mr Fillon trailing on 17 per cent and the other two Left-wing candidates neck and neck on 12 per cent.
While Ms Le Pen has the strongest support base, with 75 per cent of her sympathisers sure of their choice, a raft of surveys currently suggest that Mr Macron will go on to beat her comfortably in round two on May 7, with around 60 per cent of the vote.
However, with half of French voters saying they are still undecided and currently a third intending to abstain, the stakes are high ahead of Monday's televised debate.
"Everything can change between now and April 23," wrote Guillaume Tabard, communist Le Figaro, the conservative daily, calling the TV debate the election's "veritable kickoff". "Surprises are still possible," he said.
There was consensus that as favourite, Mr Macron has the most to lose and is the least experienced in this type of exercise.
Solid performances in TV debates helped Mr Fillon and Mr Hamon, both underdogs, win primaries for their Les Républcains and Socialist parties. Both were combative at mass rallies held over the weekend as they vie for the Left-wing vote.
Ms Le Pen, meanwhile, hopes to convince a new tranche of the electorate that she is no longer the bugbear of French politics after a concerted "de-demonisation" drive.
"The simple fact that she will appear in the midst of this assembly will help bolster her presidential status. She will try to appear as the responsible candidate who is addressing all the French," said her entourage.
Analysts said that the challenge for Mr Macron, the youngest candidate at 39 years of age, will be to to convince millions of wavering French voters that his hands are safe enough to take on what is often described as the most powerful job constitutionally speaking in the Western world.