Standard & Poor's decision to lower France's credit rating will help outsiders in the presidential election, throwing open what had long looked like a two-horse race between Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande.
That is unlikely to be fatal for Hollande but it is bad news for conservative incumbent Sarkozy, who consistently trails his left-wing challenger in the opinion polls and commands a fragile advantage over far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
More than 10 candidates are gearing up for the opening round of the election on April 22. The top two scorers go to the May 6 runoff against a backdrop of economic stagnation, bloated public
debt, and now the additional morale blow of an S&P downgrade that means France is no longer top of the class.
Even before the downgrade S&P announced last Friday, several surveys of voting intentions had shown Le Pen closing the gap on second-placed Sarkozy, renewing the spectre of an election upset where she rather than he makes it to the runoff on May 6.
Three months from election day, political analysts say it is
too soon to consider polls with decimal-point precision and thus impossible to venture that Sarkozy will lose his place in the final duel.
But it's not good overall for Sarkozy and it makes it much harder to predict how things will play out, said Paul Bacot, professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon.
It opens up the first round of the election as it weakens the two candidates who are supposed to go head to head in the final round, said Dominique Reynie, director of Fondapol, a political think-tank.
The S&P downgrade, he believes, will above all play into the
hands of candidates who argue that France has lost control over
its economic destiny and that the big-hitters, be they Sarkozy or Hollande, are to blame for a situation that puts the country at the mercy of global financial markets and ratings agencies.
Le Pen, who wants to pull France out of the euro, is not the only one who makes that case. There is also Jean-Luc Melanchon, leader of the Left Front, a coalition of communists and other left-wing hardliners.
Francois Bayrou, a centrist, has also surged in recent polls and legitimately claims to have been the first to champion deficit reduction in a country where it has never been a big vote-winner, until now in any case.
With several candidates likely to benefit, says Bacot at the Lyon politics institute, it is difficult to say how the dust will settle, but Sarkozy is most exposed in a field where the total vote is spread more widely.
Polls conducted in the past week have shown Bayrou's score double from two months ago, to around 13-14 percent.
Melenchon, who called on supporters to join a protest last weekend outside the Paris offices of Standard & Poor's, remains well behind but has gained a percentage point or two in polls that now suggest he could take a non-negligeable chunk of 8 percent or more of first round votes.
Most worrying for Sarkozy is third-placed Le Pen, who trails in some polls by five percentage points but has in some of the most recent soundings narrowed that lag to two or three points, which many pollsters considered to be no more than the average margin of error of such surveys. In recent Ifop polls, she has scored up to 21.5 percent, behind Sarkozy at 23-24 percent.
For many analysts, Hollande has yet to show voters he has the mettle to steer the economy through crisis and his score in the polls has slipped but remains sufficiently strong at close to 30 percent to make him a safe bet for the runoff round.
Sarkozy, who is expected to enter the race officially at the end of February, may now have little choice but to do so with a proposal of accelerated economic reforms, which may be painful and unpopular but show he is willing to rise to the challenge in times of crisis, Bacot argues.
Alain Duhamel, a veteran political commentator, summed up the scale of that challenge on RTL radio on Tuesday, saying:
If he fails to make it to the second round of the elections he will at least deserve the Nobel prize for economics.
(Reporting By Brian Love)