The first round of the French Presidential elections is less than two weeks away and the Elysée Palace, which for the last ten years has been bereft of ideas, courage and conviction, is being contested by four of the most unpredictable, and unexpected, candidates since the twin titans of post-war French politics, Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand, left the stage.

I say four, not three, because the real surprise of recent weeks has been the refusal of the Marxist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon to accept that he is out of the reckoning. Indeed, there are those on the Right who would tell you that, even if they regard Mélenchon’s policies as wildly impractical, at least they would have in the shape of the Moroccan-born, half-Spanish veteran an intelligent, witty, hard-working and incorruptible President who sincerely believes that his approach will create jobs, wipe the smile off the faces of the Establishment and restore the dignity of France.

Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise, which is generally translated as Unsubmissive France but which might better be thought of as People Before Profit, is not going to sweep the National Assembly elections that will follow the Presidential poll. Nor, almost certainly, will the Socialists, after five years of meltdown, be in any position to back a Marxist putsch. More to the point, Mélenchon himself is not going to make it into Round Two of the contest, which will more likely be between the Front National leader Marine Le Pen and the soufflé candidate (“I am neither right nor left”) Emmanuel Macron.

But a good turnout for Mélenchon, followed by a narrow defeat for Le Pen, would mean that around half of all votes cast would be in support of ditching the euro and abandoning the European Union. Given that Fillon is also critical of Brussels and that several of the also-rans would give Nigel Farage a run for his money, the new President, if it is indeed Macron, would then be the only significant party leader who actually believes that the way forward for France is “more Europe”.

In a remarkable analysis of Macron, written after spending three hours with him on a train from Paris to Bordeaux, Times journalist Ben Judah got closer than anyone to the heart of the enigma that is Macron. A pattern, he wrote, soon became clear.

“He is evasive when it comes to actual politics, turning everything into a philosophical question, abstracting it outwards, or deflecting with reams of facts. When talking about French history he is completely in control, looking me straight in the eye, but on foreign policy I get the impression he is reciting a script. I notice this again during the first televised debate between the five main presidential candidates. Le Pen launched a zinger at Macron right at the end: ‘You are madly talented. You spoke for seven minutes and said nothing.’ Aides fret that she has a point.”

Elsewhere in the same piece, Judah provides a killer example of the Cartesian dualism that reveals Macron to be less a practical politician than a professor manqué at Sciences Po hoping to win the Prix Médicis essai. 

“Macron tells me he believes his battle is the battle that France has always been fighting, a struggle between two ideas of France: on one side, the patriots of the Rights of Man and a France yearning to be ‘universal’. On the other is the black thread of nationalists running through Marshal Pétain and the Vichy regime to the present, wishing it closed. ‘This is the division that has long irrigated the history of our country.'”

He may well be right. But what does this mean for job-creation, cutting back on bloated public sector employment, increasing exports and confronting the post-Brexit crisis of the EU? More Europe? More Hollandisme, but without the mistresses and the midnight scooter rides.

Butting heads with Macron, Marine Le Pen has not exactly run a convincing campaign. She has been lack-lustre, as if slightly distracted. But perhaps she has just been keeping her power dry for a cannonade that will knock Macron clean off his perch. We know (or we think we know) what she will do if she gets hold of the keys of the Elysée. She will pull France out of the single currency and reintroduce the franc. Later, at a moment of her choosing, she will announce a referendum on EU membership that, if won, would almost certainly mean the end of everything Europe has known since the Treaty of Rome in 1957. 

So no bother there. In the meantime, she would instigate something of a reign of terror directed against troublesome minorities that would target Islamists but, if carried out as indicated, risk turning existing fractures into a gaping chasm. Again, no surprises there. 

Beyond that, if there is a beyond, she would try to create jobs for French workers and, if such an approach is still possible after the ongoing Syrian debacle, cosy up to both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

Or, she could just settle into the Presidency putting on her stern face and react to events as they came along, relying on rhetoric to cover up the fact that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing. 

Which leaves François Fillon. The former Prime Minister, having suffered five years as number two to Nicolas Sarkozy followed by a campaign of vilification in the press based on the fact that he appears to have embezzled close to a million euros from the French treasury, is in payback mode. Weary, yet still combative, like a heavyweight boxer whose legs have gone but still packs a haymaker of a punch if only he could get lucky, Fillon is not ready to admit defeat. Just as importantly, nor are his supporters, the Catholic equivalent of the Silent Majority invoked by Ronald Reagan when he took on Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Catholic Conservatives in France have lost out time and again in recent elections. No one knows quite how many they are, but they have been coalescing around Fillon in recent months, apparently unconcerned about his alleged misdeeds, as if to say: “What’s the problem?  Wouldn’t you have given your wife a highly-paid fictional job if you could? Wouldn’t anyone? We’re all French here. Let’s not play the hypocrisy game.” 

Fillon’s remedy for the French economy is Thatcherite Lite, but Thatcherite just the same. He wants to cut half a million jobs from the public sector, raise the retirement age, extend the working week, discourage immigration and engage decisively with terrorists. If he somehow squeezes through the gate into the second round, he would then require a majority in the Assembly that might not, via the Socialists, Mélenchon and Le Pen – to say nothing of the trade unions – come his way. The wily old professional – who looks as if he would feel at home in a periwig and lace cravat – would face an uphill struggle that could end up with him as just the latest casualty of the creaking Fifth Republic. Death or glory: at least he could seek a hefty advance on his memoirs. 

For Britain, the contest is important, even vital. Macron, one feels, would be cruel but fair in his dealings with Theresa May over Brexit. Fillon would be courtly, but no pushover across the negotiating table. Le Pen and Melénchon would be on Britain’s side, but the war would by then have moved on to a more decisive phase, like Waterloo after Quatre Bras.

Whatever happens, the spectacle now unfolding is fascinating: a perfect example of gallic democracy at its best and at its worst. We should all pay attention.