PARIS: France's presidential election is still eight months away, but a pivotal event looms in November, when conservatives pick their nominee -- the candidate pollsters say is most likely to become leader in May.
Francois Hollande, the deeply unpopular Socialist president, has put off until December his decision over whether to stand for re-election, leaving the left in an unhappy holding pattern.
A poll early this month found that Hollande would be crushed in the first round on April 23.
Voter surveys suggest that whoever does emerge on the left -- their primary is not until January -- will likely come third in the first round.
This would set up a repeat of the 2002 election, when the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin fell at the first hurdle, leaving incumbent centre-right president Jacques Chirac to contest the decisive second round against the far-right National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Fifteen years later, the party's flagbearer will be Le Pen's daughter Marine, who would come in second or even first in the first round depending on the line-up, according to polls.
The field so far
Of the candidates vying for the right-wing nomination in a two-round contest on November 20 and 27, former prime minister Alain Juppe, 71, is the most popular, while 61-year-old ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy is hot on his heels.
Meanwhile Le Pen is the undisputed face of the anti-immigration, eurosceptic far-right. She came in third in the first round of the 2012 presidential election, winning nearly 18 percent.
Hollande's hesitation meanwhile has thrown the left into disarray as some potential Socialist candidates such as Prime Minister Manuel Valls keep their ambitions under wraps.
His youthful economy minister Emmanuel Macron, 38, however has decided to strike out on his own, quitting his post last month and styling himself as "neither left nor right".
Other former members of Hollande's cabinet have announced presidential bids, notably former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg.
On the far left is Jean-Luc Melenchon, who scored an eye-catching 11 percent in the first round four years ago.
The next president will inherit a huge in-tray of issues ranging from jihadist terrorism to unemployment and a fracturing society.
France's economy is still sluggish with unemployment stuck at around 10 percent -- and there is continuing hostility to reforms.
Hollande's Socialist team has been frustrated in its efforts to combat joblessness and respond to EU pressure to bring down France's ballooning budget deficit.
After months of often violent street protests, the government forced through a labour law without a vote in parliament, even after watering down the measures.
The threat of new jihadist attacks either directed or inspired by the Islamic State group will continue to stalk France, pitting huge security concerns against citizens' rights.
A state of emergency has been renewed several times -- each time raising red flags on the left -- since it was first imposed after the November 2015 attacks in Paris that claimed 130 lives.
The climate of fear has stoked debate over the place of France's large Muslim community in society, crystallised by this summer's controversy over the body-concealing burkini swimsuit.
As the eurozone's second-biggest economy and Britain's nearest neighbour, France has a key role in shaping the post-Brexit EU.
Left or right, the new president is likely to continue seizing on a windfall of business opportunities stemming from Britain's eventual exit.
But if the new president is Le Pen, a "Frexit" could be on the cards, as she has promised to call a referendum on EU membership.