Most opinion polls say the far-right Marine Le Pen will almost certainly make the crucial second round runoff vote in next year’s French presidential election.
And opinion polls, granted they are not that reliable these days, also suggest that given the lack of an outstanding, unifying candidate on the French left, Le Pen will face whichever candidate comes out on top in Sunday’s rightwing primary runoff.
That means either François Fillon, the dark horse turned clear favourite, or Alain Juppé, the previous frontrunner turned outsider, will be likely up against the National Front leader on May 7th next year in what will be a pivotal vote for both France and the EU.
In the post-Trump, post-Brexit world, a Le Pen victory is no longer a far-fetched idea, but which candidate has the better chance to block her march towards the Elysée Palace?
Le Pen’s team have openly admitted that they had not even planned for the scenario of facing Fillon, but they will have to now after the former PM topped Sunday's first round with 44 percent of the vote.
'Fillon is more difficult, we wanted Juppé'
Judging from the noises coming out of the National Front this week it appears they would have rather faced Juppé next May.
“Fillon is the most difficult scenario for Marine. Juppé, who is easy to caricature, would be better,” one National Front official told Le Monde newspaper.
Many analysts believe next year's election campaign will revolve around the issues of identity and security where Le Pen may struggle to differentiate herself from Fillon.
Just like Le Pen, Fillon promotes a hardline on political or totalitarian Islam in France. On the same theme he has said he is in favour of an outright ban on the “burkini”, the swimwear which caused such an uproar in the summer.
And on the hot-button issue of security, Fillon’s desire to strip jihadists of their French nationality has long been the preferred policy of Le Pen’s party.
Fillon is also staunchly social conservative and his opposition to gay marriage, a promise to bar gay parents from being able to adopt and an open disapproval of abortion can attract the rightwing French Catholic voters that make up part of Le Pen’s traditional electorate.
'With Juppé, the choice for the voter would have been simple'
The former anti-gay marriage movement Manif pour Tous, heavily linked with the Catholic church is supporting Fillon.
Juppé on the other hand has promised to promote a “happy identity”. He has talked of the need to recognise diversity in France, which means promoting the country's multi-cultural make up, the antithesis of the National Front’s dream.
“Juppé was the ideal candidate for us,” one Le Pen aide told L’Express newspaper. “His happy society, that’s a multi-cultural one. So the choice for the voter would be simple.”
But things are rarely simple in French politics and there are others who argue Fillon's economic reform plan could actually boost Le Pen's chances of success.
Fillon’s economic plan for France includes making savings of €110 billion over five years. That means raising the retirement age to 65, cutting 500,000 civil servant positions, scrapping the 35 hour week and making €40 billion of tax cuts for companies. He also wants to reduce the power of the unions and scrap most of France's labour laws.
These are the kind of liberal economic reforms that have been credited for the popularity of Donald Trump among disaffected and disadvantaged American working class voters as well as the anti-EU feeling in the UK that drove many poor working class voters to buy into Brexit.
Jean-Yves Camus, a researcher with the think-tank IRIS and an expert on the far right in France, points out that Fillon’s ultra-liberal Thatcherite policies will present Le Pen, who has positioned herself as the champion of anti-globalization and anti-free trade, with plenty of ammunition for her head-to-head battle.
'Those on the left would find it difficult to vote for Fillon'
In France traditional left-wing voters, who have seen their candidates defeated, are normally prepared to vote tactically in second-round runoff votes in order to keep the National Front from power, but given his ultra-liberal policies the idea of backing Fillon may prove unpalatable to many of them.
“Those on the left would find it hard to vote for Fillon,” Camus tells The Local.
“France is just not used to such harsh economic policies,” Camus tells The Local. “What Margaret Thatcher did in the UK is just not acceptable in this country.
“If Fillon wins on Sunday Le Pen will be able to argue that he wants to inflict the same economic policies on France as Margaret Thatcher did in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US and how it’s not acceptable.
“She will say it’s an attack on the working classes and the lower middle classes.”
A member of Le Pen’s campaign team told L’Express: “Can you really imagine the workers going out to vote for Fillon en masse?”
Against Fillon, Le Pen will also be able to portray herself, just as Trump did against Clinton so effectively, as the alternative anti-establishment figure against a career politician.
The fact Fillon has been around the block and was prime minister for five years under the unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy will allow her to depict him as “same old, same old”. Although she will no doubt do the same with 71-year-old former PM Alain Juppé.
Fillon could help Le Pen into power in 2022
Nevertheless, despite the unquestionable rise of Marine Le Pen, most analysts and pollsters still believe Fillon would beat her handsomely in the second round runoff vote.
But that may only help her gain power down the line.
“If François Fillon is elected there will be a backlash,” says Camus. “The question would be can the traditional left capitalise on it and attract the disgruntled voters?
“Can the left rebuild and present itself as an alternative or will the anti-free market vote go to the National Front?
“Le Pen is not old. She’s not going anywhere. In 2022 she will still be there.”