When historians write about the 2022 French election campaign, one suspects the moment they will conclude that Emmanuel Macron won a second term came on February 13, when Valérie Pécresse, probably the only candidate with a prayer of beating him, confirmed the mediocrity of her campaign with a car crash of a rally at the Zenith Arena in Paris.
It did not conjure up the finest image of Ms Pécresse (who, unlike one or two of the other candidates, is a serious and experienced politician) that she should say, “Even if you fail, it means you have tried” – a statement of what the English call the bleeding obvious.
It sounded like a prediction of personal disaster. It is not the job of an election candidate even to consider, in public, that he or she might lose. As Queen Victoria so aptly put it, ‘We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat.”
But those possibilities are now high for Ms Pécresse. It was not just that at her rally she was wooden and short of passion. Her supporters in the hall did all they could for her, but it was not nearly enough. She simply failed to inspire.
As with Mr Macron, she has had to move her campaign right of centre (easier for her than for him, though only just) because her main hope if she makes the second round is to attract people tempted to vote for Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour, both of whom have emphasised the importance of upholding French culture and the French way of life.
This, inevitably, relies on talk about controlling immigration and about making people already in France behave in a conformist French way.
In regard to the first consideration, Ms Pécresse seemed to suggest the EU should erect physical walls around its borders to keep illegal immigrants out – “If we have to build walls like some states do, I would support them” – and to make countries who have exported those immigrants take them back, on pain of being denied visas for legal immigration.
She did not specify where these walls would be – a massive one around the Peloponnese, perhaps, or around Sicily?
This is never going to happen, and she is intelligent enough to know that. The fact she even suggested it showed the depths of trouble in which her campaign now is.
And on the question of cultural conformity, she returned to the issue of some Muslim women still being allowed to wear the veil in public.
She continues to compare herself with Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, though she has a very long way to go to match the achievement of either; but she at least offers France a sniff of Thatcherite economics, notably by cutting inheritance taxes, abolishing the highly restrictive 35-hour week and using the fiscal system better to support family life. But still the spark refused to ignite.
Mr Macron may not go down in history as France’s greatest president – though he seems to think he is – but he does know how to run a re-election campaign.
The steady haemorrhage of Républicains luminaries to support his re-election has hobbled Ms Pécresse day by day.
It was bad enough when she lost Eric Woerth, who had lengthy experience of government during the Chirac and Sarkozy presidencies and was Minister for the Budget in the latter. But then it was made known that Christine Lagarde, just about the most accomplished woman in French public life, President of the European Central Bank and, according to Forbes magazine, the second most powerful woman on the planet, was in the running to become prime minister if Mr Macron wins again.
Why on earth, if she wishes to re-enter French politics, Ms Lagarde did not offer herself for the Républicains candidacy, heaven only knows. Frankly, being anyone’s prime minister is a step down for her, including being Mr Macron’s.
It is very hard, at this juncture, to see how Mr Macron cannot win.
Ms Pécresse, Ms Le Pen and Mr Zemmour are all neck-and-neck for second place in April’s first round.
It is a tradition now for the Le Pen candidate to get into the second round and then be beaten by his or her rival, as those who had formerly supported all the other parties tend to vote against the hard-right.
Would the same happen if Mr Zemmour came second?
Almost certainly, though if either he or Ms Le Pen were the runner-up it is highly likely that the votes the defeated right-winger attracted in the first round would transfer to the other for the final.
On present figures that still leaves Mr Macron winning by 70-30. Of course, Mr Zemmour is something of an unknown quantity, and I suspect that if he is in the run-off he would run a campaign unlike any other French politics has ever seen.
He still would not win, barring some seismic upheaval in French life between now and polling day, but he might run Mr Macron closer because of his innovative style.
Were Mr Macron to win by less than 60-40 to either Ms Le Pen or Mr Zemmour, the shockwaves would be felt around Europe.
If Ms Pécresse makes the last two she would need to raise her game enormously. It does seem rather unfair to her. She has quality and would make a good president; and it is hard to conclude what Mr Macron has done so brilliantly since 2017 that he deserves to win.
He seems very much faute de mieux for the French, and his technocratic ease fits in well with the international club of centrists who run most of the western world.
Will that club’s president, Barack Obama, who praised him in 2017, do so again? I am sure Mr Macron is eagerly awaiting his call.