France's traditional political party system is fighting for survival as the presidential campaign kicks off this weekend, with the mainstream left and right at risk of being knocked out by two outsiders: the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Front National's Marine Le Pen.
The two-round presidential vote in April and May - followed immediately by parliamentary elections - is the next focus of the European political calendar after the centre-right party of Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, beat the populist, anti-Islam, anti-EU Geert Wilders into second place in Netherlands parliamentary elections this week.
Negotiations to form a Dutch coalition government in are under way and expected to take several weeks, with an array of parties in the line-up refusing to work with Wilders.
The highly unpredictable French presidential contest begins in earnest on Saturday when the full list of candidates is unveiled, possibly running to a dozen people, including smaller Gaullist and leftist candidates.
A three-hour TV debate between the top five candidates takes place on Monday night. Many hope it will shift the focus from the political corruption scandals that have dominated airtime and onto key policy questions such as how to deal with the mass-unemployment that has plagued the country for decades and how to secure the future of France's wide-ranging, but increasingly costly, social protection system, including pensions, healthcare and unemployment benefits.
Polls currently suggest the final round run-off on 7 May could deal a hammer-blow to traditional parties by pitting the centrist Macron, who has never run for election, against the far-right, anti-immigration, anti-EU Le Pen, whose FN has made steady gains in every election since she took over the leadership from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011.
Fifteen years ago, when the Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the final round of the 2002 election, it was a political earthquake. He was squarely beaten by the rightwing Jacques Chirac who won with 82%.
This time, his daughter is seen leading the first round and the final run-off is likely to be much closer. Polls suggest Le Pen will be beaten by whoever faces her, and that she cannot win the more than 50% majority needed to become president. But observers are cautious. Despite party-funding corruption scandals facing the FN, Le Pen's electoral base remains solid.
The election could be marked by a blurring of the traditional right-left divide in favour of new divisions between a liberal, pro-globalisation stance and "close-the-borders" nationalism.
Jérôme Sainte-Marie, a political scientist and pollster, said the new rift would be between those who felt they were benefiting from globalisation and "those who feel they are losing out". Le Pen has styled her election campaign as between "patriots" and the "globalists" who she says are embodied by Macron, a former investment banker who served as economy minister under François Hollande.
François Fillon, the former prime minister and candidate for the mainstream rightwing party Les Républicains, has, in less then two months, gone from being the clear favourite to desperately fighting to stay in the race. The self-styled honourable Mr Clean who wanted to slash public spending is now under formal investigation for the embezzlement of state funds after he allegedly gave his wife and children generous, taxpayer-funded "fake jobs" as parliamentary assistants over the course of his long political career.(Source: The Guardian)