French voters have already sent shock waves across the country by upending a political system that has been in place for a generation. Now they'll have a chance on Sunday to rattle the foundations of Europe when they elect a new president to give voice to their rising discontent with the status quo.
Their choice couldn't be more profound. They either embrace Marine Le Pen of the National Front and endorse her brand of populism that has led elsewhere to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump; or turn to political novice Emmanuel Macron, a former banker who wants to strengthen the country's ties to Europe and who embraces globalization. Either way, Europe is in for a shakeup and the world will have to adjust to a new French leader who shunned traditional politics and has never held high office.
Voters here have already rejected politics as usual. They obliterated the establishment party candidates in the first round of voting last month, opting for Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen as the finalists in the second round, even though Mr. Macron has never held elected office and Ms. Le Pen's party has been on the margins of French politics for 40 years. Their head-to-head campaign has also been among the most bruising and acrimonious France has ever seen. The low point came this week when their only debate descended into a shouting match, with Mr. Macron calling Ms. Le Pen "a hate-filled liar feeding off France's misery," while she labelled him the candidate of "savage globalization" who will cause "a war of everyone against everyone."
The campaign "has been extremely shocking in many ways," said Nicole Bacharan, a political scientist who lectures at Sciences Po University in Paris. "I've never been so worried, so stressed out and so shocked." Most unsettling has been "the division of the country and the hatred that came out of groups of people who can't discuss anything, can't understand each other, can't talk," she added. "It's like they don't speak the same language." Whoever wins, she says, will have to deal with that divide "because it isn't going away."
Mr. Macron has the edge heading into Sunday's vote, thanks to a comfortable lead in most opinion polls and the backing of the country's main political figures. But his support is soft and analysts expect as many as 25 per cent of voters will abstain or spoil their ballots in protest at both candidates. That could play into the hands of Ms. Le Pen, whose supporters remain fiercely loyal despite her debate performance, which was widely panned even by her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Ms. Le Pen is conceding nothing and on Thursday she held her final campaign rally in Ennemain, a village in northern France that typifies the growing anger she has tapped into.
Just 230 people live here and the signs of rural angst are everywhere. Mayor Patrice Grimaux said Ennemain used to be a thriving place with a butcher shop, a bakery, a store and a garage. "Now we have nothing," he added, gesturing to the scattered houses from the doorway of the village hall. "All of the villages are dying."
He pointed across the street to the À l'Habitude coffee shop, which closed a few years ago and remains a boarded-up relic. Someone tried to reopen it, he said, but the bank wouldn't lend them money. There aren't even many family farms left because most have been swallowed up by large agribusinesses. The only jobs available around here are seasonal work picking vegetables or at the Bonduelle food-processing plant in nearby Estrées-Mons.
This is Le Pen country and Mr. Grimaux, a line manager at Bonduelle, proudly backs the National Front candidate, saying she cares about rural communities. His son, an out-of-work engineer, is volunteering with her campaign and the village has shown its support, too, handing Ms. Le Pen a comfortable victory in the first round of voting, with 61 of the 195 ballots cast. Mr. Macron came fourth with 21 votes. "She's our president," said Philippe Devillez, a local resident who couldn't wait to see Ms. Le Pen.
Hundreds of people from across the countryside came to hear Ms. Le Pen, and the rally had a carnival-like atmosphere – with food trucks, rides for children and a tent selling locally grown carrots, radishes, onions and potatoes. When she hit the makeshift stage, Ms. Le Pen drove home her message of anti-globalization and insisted that she spoke for the disaffected and the silent majority who are fed up with elites.
"My voice is nothing but an echo of the social violence that will explode in this country," she said. Then she railed against immigration, the European Union and greedy bankers like Mr. Macron. "You have one chance, one chance Sunday, to say that we are the only masters in our country," she said.
Few people even in her entourage expect her to win on Sunday. "We are not disillusioned," said Florian Philippot, a National Front vice-president who is a key adviser to Ms. Le Pen. "We are not the favourites. We are the challengers and it will be up to the French people to decide."
But he knows a message has been delivered and he took pleasure in mocking the release of a video by former U.S. president Barack Obama endorsing Mr. Macron. Mr. Obama "supported Hillary Clinton and she lost," he said with a smile. "He campaigned against Brexit, and Brexit won. And now he campaigns for Macron. Good."
He also had something to say to Canadians who might fear Ms. Le Pen and her movement. "Canada, and notably Quebec, and all of the Francophonie, will win with a victory of Marine Le Pen. We will relaunch the relationship and create a special link," he said in a brief interview before the Ennemain rally. But he also had a warning about the Canada-European Union trade deal, calling it "a catastrophe for us" and vowing to work to scrap it.
Mr. Macron has been treading a fine line in the last few days of the campaign, pressing his call for France to broaden its ties with the EU but mindful of the discontent with the union. He's won points from many pundits for his deportment during the debate and for challenging Ms. Le Pen's call for France to drop the euro and bring back the franc. And he's seen a slight boost in his support in a couple of opinion polls released on Friday that put him at around 60 per cent.
"I'm a pro-European, I defended constantly during this election the European idea and European policies because I believe it's extremely important for French people and for the place of our country in globalization," he told reporters this week. "But at the same time we have to face the situation, to listen to our people." He has talked more openly lately about changing how Europe operates, including reforming labour rules and other regulations that some say has inhibited France's economic growth.
Many people are already planning for his victory and jockeying for positions in his future government. There are still parliamentary elections in June that will determine how far Mr. Macron as president could go in implementing his domestic reforms, which include overhauling the country's rigid labour market as well as slashing public spending and civil-servant jobs.
By any measure his campaign has been a phenomenon. Mr. Macron only founded his movement, called En Marche!, last year after resigning as economy minister in the government of Socialist President François Hollande, a position he'd held for just two years. He's never run for office and when he launched his presidential bid last summer, he vowed to be a non-politician, "neither right nor left." If he wins, he'll be the youngest president in French history at 39.
"When you look at what he has achieved, coming from nowhere and putting together a political operation in a very short time, this is actually an astonishing trajectory in political terms," said French economist Nicolas Véron, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank. Mr. Macron has also realigned French politics and served up a lesson for other countries, Mr. Véron added. He said Mr. Macron caught on to the idea that the old left-right divide was no longer as important as the split between those who want an open economy and society, and those who feel left behind by globalization. The result has been a structural change in the country's politics and the demise of traditional parties such as the Socialists and Republicans, he said.
That shift in the power base is all too clear when it comes to people like 26-year-old Kevin Dodre, who's fed up with the political system, elites and especially the EU. "It's Europe that decides most things and that's wrong," said Mr. Dodre, a railway worker who lives in Paris but grew up near Ennemain. He's backing Ms. Le Pen but wants to see major changes no matter who wins. "It's wrong that we don't have our future in our hands. It's Europe that controls our future. That has to change."