"Can Nicolas Sarkozy still win? Arithmetically, it is just possible. In terms of electoral mood and practical politics, it's probably beyond him," a senior figure on the right of French politics told the Independent yesterday.
Much depends on the 6.4 million people who voted for the National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen. This is the highest total recorded for a far-right candidate in a modern French election.
Such a huge score for a xenophobic, anti-European, anti-establishment party presages a possible redrawing of party and ideological boundaries on the French right if a defeat for Sarkozy next month shreds his centre-right UMP.
To win the second round on May 7, Sarkozy has to claim most of Le Pen's votes and two-thirds of the three million people who voted for the centrist candidate, Francois Bayrou.
Polls suggest he will take only six in 10 of the Le Pen voters and two in five Bayrou voters.
Many of the "new" voters attracted by Le Pen were from rural areas and are mostly conservative voters angered by falling incomes. Le Pen also attracted new blue-collar voters and many of these will probably turn to Francois Hollande on May 7 or not vote at all.
The arithmetic of the projected votes suggests a narrow victory for Hollande.