Could François Fillon, for all his allegedly criminal payments of family members from public funds, recover lost ground sufficiently to pull off a surprise win, reaching the second round of the French presidential election on Sunday and then beating whoever remains as his opponent in the May 7 runoff? It has to be said the choice facing the electorate is a pretty unappealing one. 'Who would you want operating on you?' Mme Salut's Fillon-supporting phsyiotherapist asked. 'A brilliant surgeon who didn't pay all his dues or an honest incompetent?' We'll see. Fillon could even benefit a little from speculation that he and supporters were the intended targets of two men arrested while apparently on the point of carrying out a terrorist attack on the campaign. As a race that seems wide open nears the finishing line, this is how I set the scene in a comment piece for The National* ...
An unsigned note left on the seat of a public bench in a small French Riviera resort read: "I would vote but prefer democracy."
As a piece of philosophy, it falls beneath the standards of Descartes, Voltaire or Sartre – even its coherence is open to challenge. But the sentiment sums up the mood of disenchantment that, only days before France votes in the first round of a murky presidential election, leaves the outcome wide open.
Faced with a choice of candidates many consider unconvincing, up to 35 per cent are said by opinion polls to have no intention of voting at all, making abstentionism – to quote the state-owned broadcaster France Info – "the leading party".
If pollsters retain any credibility after failing to predict Brexit or the victory of Donald Trump, the front-runners in France are easy to identify. Latest polls put the centrist Emmanuel Macron slightly ahead of the far-right Marine Le Pen, both scoring between 22 and 24 per cent, with the centre-right François Fillon and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon narrowly separated between three and six points behind.
Even at its most accurate, polling carries the health warning of a three-point error margin. This raises the prospect that the French could end up voting for anything from the most left wing programme Europe has seen from a serious contender for power since the fall of communism (Mr Mélenchon) to the protectionist, anti-immigration and anti-European Union Front National (Ms Le Pen).
Mr Mélenchon even talks of doing away with the job he seeks, with a new sixth republic replacing the model that has defined the governance of France since the days of Gen Charles de Gaulle without what he calls a "presidential monarchy".
Since a sizeable part of the electorate is intent on voting but far from sure who for, the potential for a shock becomes greater still. The candidates taking the top two places among the 11 candidates contesting Sunday’s first round will go forward to a decisive run-off on May 7 unless, as seems impossible, one wins with an absolutely majority.
For the French, the choice is complicated by the scandal and rumor that have dogged the campaign from its outset. Mr Fillon, a clear favorite when he won the primaries of the mainstream conservatives, has been grievously wounded by allegations that he paid his British wife, Penelope, and two of their five children huge amounts in return for, at best, wildly exaggerated duties.
Since the money, more than €900,000 (Dh3.5m), came from public funds, Mr Fillon and his wife both now find themselves under formal criminal investigation. This creates the unseemly possibility that a man offering himself as the most responsible candidate with the soundest economic policies, and the woman who would serve as his first lady, could eventually have to stand trial.
Ms Le Pen also has a raft of troubles with the law, including claims that her party misused money from the EU, an institution it loathes, to pay the salaries of staff based purely in France.
That leaves Mr Macron, who has never held elected office, and Mr Mélenchon, a charismatic intellectual born in Morocco where his father worked in the pre-independence French postal service.
Mr Macron was an adviser and then minister in François Hollande’s socialist government before deciding he was not a socialist after all. He insists his policies, including slashing bureaucracy and labor costs while easing taxes on pay, have nothing to do with the traditional left-right divide but offer a way to haul France into the 21st century.
Meanwhile, Mr Mélenchon mocks his portrayal as a "dangerous" man who would, in his self-caricature, bring "nuclear winter, torrents of frogs, Red Army tanks and the landing of the Venezuelans".
Admirers, attending his rallies in tens of thousands, lap it up. They are as unmoved by criticism of their candidate as are Le Pen supporters by justifiable concerns that her party still harbours unsavoury elements who regret the defeat of Adolf Hitler.
One fervent French-Moroccan Mélenchon supporter, Mounia Belaili, who previously believed nothing could stop Ms Le Pen, now says he could be on the verge of a historic victory for the left.
Away from the hustings, conversation at Sunday lunch in Nice inevitably turned to the election.
"It’s a rotten choice," said the host, a doctor. "Le Pen – catastrophe. Mélenchon – catastrophe. Macron – the least realisable programme of all. And how could the French ever again respect Fillon?"
How has he resolved his personal uncertainty?
"I shall vote Fillon with a heavy heart because he is the least bad option."
Current projections suggest Ms Le Pen would be beaten by any of her main adversaries in the run-off.
But in this unedifying process of choosing a successor to the historically unpopular Mr Hollande, his own socialist party in deep and unelectable despair, a much older version of that anonymous message on the Riviera bench springs to mind. "If voting changed anything, they’d have made it illegal," said the late Russian anarchist and author Emma Goldman.
* The National, Abu Dhabi permits me to reproduce my work at Salut! Check how it appears at the newspaper's site here.