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In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked even himself by finishing second in the first round of France's presidential election, almost everyone who did not initially vote for the then-National Front leader joined forces to block him from getting a centimetre closer to the Élysée Palace.

On May 1 that year, about 1.3 million French voters marched in cities across the country in a show of force to denounce the far-right Mr. Le Pen and his xenophobic diatribes. Thus emerged the so-called Republican Front that has formed at every electoral turn since to stop the National Front in its tracks.

Until now. The relentless calls from French establishment figures to vote against Marine Le Pen following her second-place finish in the April 23 first presidential round have little resonance in 2017. France's political elites have been so discredited that the prospect of 82 per cent of French voters backing Emmanuel Macron on Sunday (the proportion of votes won by Jacques Chirac in 2002) is not even conceivable. Hence, Mr. Macron's likely victory will also represent a defeat.

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French election: Macron, Le Pen to face off in second round of voting on May 7

Constant warnings of a relapse into ugly nationalism, and the mainstream media's constant focus on the National Front's anti-Semitic origins and past affiliations, have not stopped the far-right from steadily gaining ground. On Sunday, Ms. Le Pen will capture at least twice as many votes as her father did in 2002 – a brewing plagiarism charge won't hurt her – and will position her party for big gains in June's legislative elections.

This entre deux tours, or period between electoral rounds, has been marked not by the resurrection of a Republican Front but by the emergence of les Ni-Ni – voters who will either abstain or destroy their ballots on Sunday in an act of protest against the elites (of whom Mr. Macron is a perfect incarnation) and the National Front's – there's no other word for it – creepiness. They will make governing just as hard for Mr. Macron as a strengthened National Front opposition. The centre may hold on Sunday. But for how long after that?

Since April 23, in Lyon and elsewhere, it has been the Ni-Nis who have most often been heard in the streets with their defiant chant – "Ni Marine, ni Macron, ni patrie, ni patron" – embodying their rejection of Ms. Le Pen's narrow nationalism and Mr. Macron's corporate sympathies.

The most telling sign of the Republican Front's erosion remains far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon's refusal to direct the 19 per cent of French electors who supported him on April 23 to cast a ballot for Mr. Macron on Sunday. As a Socialist politician in 2002, Mr. Mélenchon was one of the first in his party to rally behind Mr. Chirac to block Mr. Le Pen. Now, while he makes it clear he will not vote for Mr. Le Pen's daughter, he has refused to back Mr. Marcon. The latter's plan to retain and even extend pro-business reforms to the French labour code adopted by President François Hollande have likely set the scene for some epic clashes in the coming months.

Foreign media seeking to make sense of this fracturing of the electorate have found a reasonable explanation in French political geographer Christophe Guilluy's mapping of the country's globalization winners and losers. His thesis is borne out in the results of the first presidential round. Mr. Macron captured more than 40 per cent of the vote in Paris's 2nd, 3rd and 4th arrondissements. Ms. Le Pen dominated hollowed-out industrial enclaves in the country's north and east, adding working-class voters to her party's traditional southern-France base of Pieds-noirs (French citizens expelled from Algeria). Mr. Guilluy sees in the Macron-Le Pen duel an ultimate clash between France's bobos (bourgeois bohemians) and la plèbe, the fast-expanding, marginalized masses who live in a "peripheral France."

Instead of recognizing the warning signs in Mr. Guilluy's research, French intellectual elites have questioned either his academic credentials (he never completed his doctoral thesis and holds no university posting) or his motives. In fact, he makes no bones about whose side he's on. "For me, defending the little guy is in my guts," Mr. Guilluy told Le Figaro last week. "If France's elite doesn't make the rescue of the working class its priority, it's doomed."

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Despite all that's happened, from the clobbering of main-party candidates to the normalization of the National Front and the rise of the Ni-Nis, the elite is still in denial.

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