In the little main street of our quartier in Montpellier, opposite a popular bar and micro-brewery appropriately called Drapeau Rouge (Red Flag), is a set of three poster sites of the kind that usually advertise upcoming church masses or food fairs. This summer, they've been put to a different purpose: to proclaim the Presidential ambitions of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, grouchy torch-bearer for La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), a Podemos-style gathering of various elements of the left.
The election may be seven months away, yet Jean-Luc is out of the traps. One of the few near-certainties of this election is that he won't win, but he is not the only early bird. TV political discussion programmes, of which France has many, are already filling up with would-be tenants of the Élysée Palace. This tells you two things: that the election is not the foregone conclusion that many have assumed it to be; and that it is more than usually important.
In writing this, one is conscious that Scottish readers may need some persuading of its importance. Brits generally take very little interest in foreign elections, unless it's the US, which they don't really count as foreign. In any case, surely it is Sunday's federal election in Germany, and the retirement of the irreplaceable Angela Merkel, that is truly critical? Well, yes, of course it is. It is also one reason why the future leadership of France is more than usually important.
The Merkel-Macron partnership, while occasionally fractious, has focused the EU's relevance, purpose and coherence in unprecedentedly difficult times, against the challenges of pandemic, mass immigration and the bombastic sod-the-rest nationalism which has arisen in several countries around the fringes of the continent, including Brexit Britain.
With the US retreating from its post-war role as global prefect, with the relevance of NATO increasingly questioned, and with the Anglophone treachery (in French eyes) of AUKUS, the potential of the EU block as an international standard-bearer for decency and democracy has never been more keenly advanced. That Britain has opted out of this debate does not diminish its intensity. Internal differences among the EU27 animate rather than stall the discussion. It features centrally in both German and French elections, and should be a defining conversation in the EU for years to come. Yet momentum depends to a large degree on what happens now in Berlin and Paris.
Germany's talent for unflustered continuity should never be underestimated, yet Merkel's departure must inevitably unsettle the continental leadership, at least for a while. It will be to Emmanuel Macron and his vision (more popular elsewhere than in France) of a proactive, muscular EU that attention will turn. Should he too fall in April, the whole project could collapse.
French elections, with their multiple candidates, impenetrable acronyms, shifting alliances, festering feuds, articulated forenames, and two rounds of voting, are never easy for outsiders to follow. This one at least has some recognisable names in the frame, alongside the anticipated front-runners, Macron and Marine Le Pen.
Last weekend saw a bid finally confirmed for the Socialist nomination from the unquestionably dynamic Anne Hidalgo. Anyone who has visited Paris recently will be familiar with her works, if not the lady herself. It is Mayor Hidalgo who has banished motor vehicles from many of the most famous thoroughfares in the City of Light, to the delight of some and the despair of others. Though she is not without rivals for the Socialist candidacy, notably former Development Minister Arnaud Montebourg, she is a clear favourite for the nomination.
The Socialists, the party of François Mitterand, have been on something of a rollercoaster ride. At the 2017 Presidential election, they slumped to a pitiful 6% in the wake of François Hollande's dreich incumbency. Since then, there has been some recovery. They seized control of several major cities, including Lyon and Bordeaux, at this year's municipal elections. Initial polling puts Hidalgo at a limp 8%, behind Mélenchon and the Greens, but she is a formidable campaigner, who will play down her Parisian credentials (not always an asset in la France profonde) in favour of her backstory as the poor immigrant child of a Spanish shipyard worker. This could provide an appealing campaign riposte to what is likely to be some pretty rancid anti-immigrant bile from the right.
But the left is fragmented. Aside from Mélenchon and a probable Communist, a popular #MeToo figure, Sandrine Rousseau, has joined the Green's primary race. A grassroots initiative has launched to unite left and Green votes behind a single candidate, in the hope of making it into the top two and avoiding another Macron v Le Pen, centre-right v far-right, run-off. Green policies are generally on the advance. Green groups (there are lots) share power on several local councils. One of Mélenchon's posters at le Drapeau dutifully proclaims devotion to biodiversity. Thirteen groupings are involved in the initiative. But, significantly, neither Mélenchon nor Hidalgo wants to play.
Meanwhile, joining a populous field competing for the banner of the conservative Républicains is the elegant figure of Michel Barnier, well known to Brits as the grown-up in the room throughout the Brexit negotiations. His problem is that the respect he gained there does not translate into political charisma in France, where he is seen as dusty and dull. Two former senior Sarkozy ministers, Valérie Pécresse and Xavier Bertrand, are polling ahead of him.
The Républicains, Nicolas Sarkozy's old outfit, may decide their candidate by primary, though Bertrand has said he will have nothing to do with it. Possibly the bigger problem they have to overcome is their sense of entitlement. The Presidency was expected to be theirs in 2017, until the fraud squad collared their candidate, François Fillon, and Macron's pop-up party, La République En Marche, jinked through the middle. Now they risk being squeezed between Macron on the centre-right and Marine Le Pen's National Rally, formerly the National Front, on the far-right.
So, the polls do point to another Macron-Le Pen second round. They are currently polling at 24% and 23% respectively, with their nearest rival (Bertrand) on 16. Yet neither can be certain of lasting the course at that level, nor or prevailing through the potential chaos of the first round of voting, and neither commands a party with a robust grassroots organisation.
Macron has regained popularity with the remarkable success of his vaccination passport scheme (though some detest it) and is seen as an assured administrator, but with a provocatively unFrench fondness for 'Anglo-Saxon' market economics. Le Pen has worked hard to soften the image of her party from its old jackboot identity under her father as the National Front, but its progress in sub-national elections has faltered, and she has lately returned to a more nationalistic tone. Meanwhile, the rabid commentator Éric Zemmour, who makes Le Pen sound like Roy Jenkins, is expected to run, putting her vote under pressure from both its left (Républicains) and right (Zemmour).
If it is Macron and Le Pen who emerge from the first round on 10 April to fight the run-off two weeks later, then Macron will probably win, because everybody else will come together to stop Le Pen. But the crowded field, even at this early stage, bears testament to the importance of this election – and to a far from guaranteed outcome.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster