LONDON - With just two months to go before the first round of France's presidential elections, opinion pollsters are struggling to offer even a tentative prediction of the outcome.
Just about the only clear message to emerge at this stage is that incumbent President Emmanuel Macron is enjoying a healthy lead, despite the fact that he has yet to formally announce his candidacy for the April election.
French ballots are conducted in two rounds.
A candidate can only be declared a winner in the first round if he or she obtains an absolute majority of more than 50 per cent of the votes cast.
No president has achieved this feat since the current system was introduced seven decades ago, so all elections go into a second round two weeks later which features only the two best-placed candidates from the first round.
Thus, the first-round strategy of all presidential aspirants is to mobilise core supporters to make sure they do not get eliminated; once candidates get into the second round, they broaden their appeal to the nation at large.
President Macron hopes to repeat the experience that got him elected five years ago: to be ahead in the first round - opinion polls show his current support at around 25 percent, well ahead of all others - and then face Ms Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant and far-right National Rally, in the second round.
Ms Le Pen, an effective speaker and a seasoned campaigner, may well follow President Macron into the second round, as she had done during the last electoral campaign.
But she is incapable of broadening her voters' base, largely because she is such a polarising figure. So, whoever stands against her in the decisive second ballot is virtually guaranteed to win.
The only candidate President Macron truly fears in this year's elections is Mrs Valerie Pecresse, the standard-bearer of the centre-right Republicans, one of France's most established political parties, and a politician with two decades of experience.
If Mrs Pecresse gets into the second round, the moderate and plausible candidate could well defeat Mr Macron and become France's first-ever female head of state.
Her chances of progressing into the second round of voting initially appeared to have been boosted by the fact that Ms Le Pen's far-right movement is now challenged by the presence of another extreme right-winger: Mr Eric Zemmour, a media personality whose anti-migrant and anti-Islam stances are even more aggressive.
The received wisdom among pollsters had been that, with Ms Le Pen and Mr Zemmour splitting the far-right constituency, Mrs Pecresse could edge ahead of them in the first round and get the chance to face President Macron into the second ballot.
But at least for the moment, this is not happening.
After attracting a great deal of publicity, support for Mr Zemmour has languished at around 13 per cent of voters, behind Ms Le Pen and Mrs Pecresse, who are each credited by pollsters with about 15.5 per cent support.
So, Ms Le Pen still has a good chance of surviving the first round, thereby indirectly guaranteeing President Macron's re-election.
Mr Patrick Stefanini, Mrs Pecresse's campaign manager, remains optimistic about her edging ahead. "We will prevail by upholding an image of credibility, courage and sincerity", he told local media this week.
His strategy is to convince voters that a ballot for Ms Le Pen is a waste. "Le Pen's solutions are not practical, and her manifesto is just a mirror to the larks," he added, referring to a French tale about a shiny mirror attracting small birds, a metaphor for empty promises that only catch gullible individuals.
But persuading voters to swing behind Mrs Pecresse may not be easy.
Research done by Ipsos, one of France's leading pollsters, indicates that while President Macron retains the loyalty of around two-thirds of those who supported him back in 2017, Mrs Pecresse can only rely on just under half of the support traditionally given to her party.
Furthermore, the pandemic has shifted electoral priorities.
"The voters' top concerns are the retention of their purchasing power, Covid-19, the health system and the environment," said Mr Brice Tentourier, the deputy boss of Ipsos. "Immigration and criminality, issues where the right and extreme right are more credible, only come later."
Still, the electoral outcome remains unpredictable. This is partly because all that Mrs Pecresse has to do to qualify for the decisive second round is to edge ahead by even one additional vote, and partly because voters' turnout is predicted to be low, thereby potentially upending most pollsters' projections.
Furthermore, Mr Macron has to contend with a precarious history: no sitting French president has succeeded in winning re-election over the past two decades.