France on April 22 holds the first round of voting in a presidential election that could see Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande take the lead over incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
Hollande, who cuts a bland public figure and Sarkozy, the impulsive incumbent, are the top contenders out of 10 candidates. Neither is expected to get 50 percent of the vote needed to win outright. But polls suggest Hollande would win a second-round runoff against Sarkozy on May 6.
Political and financial analysts say a victory for Hollande would have implications beyond France because it would bring an end to the so-called "Merkozy" alliance between Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that has guided European policy in recent years.
And potential discord over policy between Europe's two largest economies could have a significant impact on the stability of the euro currency at a fragile time for the continent.
A key difference between Hollande and Merkel is how they believe the European Central Bank should operate. Hollande wants new rules that would make it a lender of last resort to debt-burdened eurozone governments. In fact, that had been a traditional French policy goal for the European Central Bank since the 1990s. But Sarkozy has backed down from those ambitions as Europe's debt crisis has unfolded, bringing his position more in line with that of Merkel's.
Instead, Merkel and Sarkozy have tried to push through harsh austerity measures that would lead to a new European Union treaty -- including automatic penalties for eurozone countries with a deficit of more than 3 percent of their GDP, the criteria stipulated in the 1992 Maastricht treaty upon which the single European currency was founded.
To Borrow Or Not To Borrow
In his final week of campaigning, Sarkozy stressed the need for France to reduce its own deficit and debt. In the process, he has criticized Hollande's election pledge to hire some 64,000 teachers, hinting that it is recklessly wasteful.
"Who are the markets, if not for people who you ask to finance a debt that you have?" he asked. "If the first decision is to create 60,000 more public-sector posts, you are reinforcing the influence of the markets. Do I make myself understood?"
Hollande, who rejects more financial austerity, wants to raise taxes on the rich and on companies. He has admitted that Europe's debt crisis is not over. But he says Sarkozy is trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by stoking market fears.
"The euro crisis is not over, you are right to say it. But today France is not exposed," Hollande said. "And let's not make people believe that it could be attacked because that would be the best way to feed these predictions."
France's budget deficit recently reached 5.2 percent of GDP -- 3 percentage points less than that of Spain, but much higher than official figures provided by Italy. France has started to borrow money to pay for its social benefits.
Tomasz Michalski, an economics professor at the international business school HEC Paris, says France's public debt is piling up to a dangerous level as a result.
"Now we are in a situation where debt-to-GDP is around 85 percent of GDP and it turns out that some countries in the eurozone that followed the same scenario -- notably Spain, notably Greece or Ireland, for example -- basically are nearly blowing up," Michalski says.
To The Left, To The Right
Other candidates represent a wide political spectrum. On the far left is Jean-Luc Melenchon, an ex-Trotskyite and former Socialist cabinet minister who left the party to form his Left Front coalition.
Dominique Moisi, senior adviser to the French Institute for International Affairs in Paris, describes Melenchon as the most dynamic figure in the campaign.
"He is lively, the best speaker, a very gifted, cultivated radical. He's a crypto-revolutionary and benefits from the support of the Communist Party. He has the party machine, plus the spontaneity of his personality," Moisi says. "He is the only revelation of the campaign."
At the opposite end of the political spectrum is Marine Le Pen's National Front. She is the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the far-right party. With calls for tighter immigration rules, a theme of her campaign has been fear of Islamization.
Between them, Le Pen and Melenchon are polling about 30 percent of the vote -- a reflection, analysts say, of general voter dissatisfaction with establishment politicians.
In between Le Pen's National Front and Melenchon's Left Front is centrist Francois Bayrou. Five years ago, in the first round of presidential balloting, he won nearly one-fifth of the votes.
Analysts say Melenchon, Le Pen, and Bayrou are unlikely to make it into the second round. But they say those who cast ballots for these three politicians will play a critical role in deciding the winner.
With reporting by the Voice of America's Andre de Nesnera in Washington