If we've learned anything from the Brexit surprise and the Donald Trump-election jolt, it's that those who claim to know precisely what is going on in the political world are often over-zealous in their confidence. Or to put it another way, predicting political outcomes is a fool's – or a journalist's – game. With all of their money and skills, the CIA, for example, was stunned by the immediacy of the Soviet decay, and with all of their experience and finesse, British intelligence had no idea Iran would become so Islamist so quickly.

We assume that the French, being Western and democratic, are merely better-dressed North Americans and thus easy to understand. Not so. Gallic politics is far more exotic, polarized and volatile than anything the Anglo-Saxon world can offer and we have no authentic idea what will happen next spring. What we do know is that the presidential front-runners are François Fillon and Marine Le Pen. The former, once prime minister under the now discredited president Nicolas Sarkozy, is the candidate of the latest manifestation of the mainstream right. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of that rancid old Nazi darling Jean-Marie Le Pen and, while the underdog, is barking loud and long.

The left is unlikely to make much of a mark in the coming election, largely because French socialism has been in a state of confusion for a generation, but also due to the increasing connection between working-class voters and the hard right. And here is the issue. The battle will be a struggle between two shades of deep, deep blue.

Admirer of U.K. neo-conservatives

Fillon is on the right of the French Republican movement. He's an admirer of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a close friend of the British neo-conservatives who were empowered in the 1980s and a man who is more than willing to listen politically and electorally when the Parisian sewers breathe. He's also unusual in that he's an Anglophile with a Welsh wife, and by no means unsympathetic to the Brexit culture.

France Far Right Feud

French far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen is greeted by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in Lyon, France on Nov. 30. (Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press)

Le Pen is, well, a Le Pen. Her father was the personification of the old French far right with all of its ambivalence towards the Nazis, anti-Semitism and fear and hatred of the United States, which it saw as the big brother of perfidious Britain. Marine is different, however, and almost certainly sincere when she claims to be distinct from dad. She has certainly done a great deal to expunge the party's apparent Jew-hatred, homophobia and penchant for black leather jackets and violence. She's built up relationships with Sephardic Jews in particular, the gay community and – important this – organized labour. A soft fascist? Perhaps, and that's bad enough; but many in the party refuse to change, even after a series of expulsions of the nastiest of the nasty.

Concerns about religion versus civil laws

But right-wing parties are in the ascendancy in Europe, which is why the traditional conservative movement in France chose Fillon rather than a safe, gentle pragmatist. France has been victim to numerous terrorist attacks and lost almost 250 people in the past two years. That must not be dismissed. The natural ceiling of the hard right was usually around 15 per cent at best, but myriad blue collar, middle class and even high-income French voters are now deeply shaken by what they see as the religious threat to their beloved republic.

I say "religious threat" because France has long been aggressively secular, and Fillon recently made a point of criticizing both Roman Catholicism and Judaism for not always observing the civil laws of the civil state. Some in the Jewish community condemned him for that, but this intensely intelligent man knew exactly what he was doing and saying.

From the end of the 18th century, the Catholic Church was under siege. Protestants were seen as outsiders as soon as they mobilized in the mid-16th, Jews have always occupied a complex and nuanced place in French society and now Muslims are perceived as a danger — not just due to terrorism carried out by fringe fanatics — but due to Islam's sense of orthodoxy and adherence. For so many people who will be voting in April, it's just not French.

Remember: this is the nation of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, repeated revolutions, the Dreyfus affair, Vichy collaboration and Algerian atrocities. The divisions are severe: Paris and provinces, educated and not, ethnic and proudly Gallic. In spite of what it seems and boasts, France is and has always been politically insecure and even democratically unstable. The nation, and by extension the European continent, could change dramatically before we even know it.

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