IN keeping with his Napoleonic stature, Nicolas Sarkozy is the kind of politician who could start a war in an empty room.

Naturally combative, unwaveringly confident, sharp of suit, the French President gives every impression that it is the voters who would be the truly lucky ones if they give him a second term in office.

That, however, requires him to win the electoral fight of his life. With a patchy to poor record in office and trailing in the polls behind the Socialist candidate, Francois Hollande, Mr Sarkozy, until recently, looked to have about as much chance as Tony Blair of returning to high office.

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But never underestimate a short man's determination to play the long game. Mr Sarkozy, who launched his economic plan yesterday and who faces the voters for the first round of elections on April 22, is determined to be Le Comeback Kid. If he does defeat Mr Hollande, it would be a remarkable turnaround. It could also bury any chance of Europe trying something other than bread-and-water austerity politics as a way to combat the economic downturn. A defeat for Mr Hollande would confirm, as our own dear Coalition Government continues to argue, that there really is no alternative.

As they have shown so often in their history, the French know how to put on a show of democracy. If an election was held in the UK tomorrow, voters would be hard pushed whether to punish the Tories, skelp Labour, or destroy the LibDems. Few would be voting positively one way or another, such is the low standing Britain's parties currently endure. The SNP, unless one's abiding concern is the independence referendum, is hardly setting the heather alight either. The only passion it is sparking at the moment is on its loony internet wing, and those are conflagrations Alex Salmond could well do without.

The French, though, are doing things differently. They have a genuine choice between the Gaullist Sarkozy and the Socialist Hollande, between the far right Marine Le Pen and the far left Jean-Luc Melanchon, the Greens' Eva Joly and five others besides. The land that gave the world liberte, egalite and fraternite also believes in offering diversite. Unless, that is, you are looking for a non-white candidate, in which case jog on.

In Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande, the voters have a clear black and white choice, or blue/red and pink if you go by the party logos. Mr Hollande has promised to hit the ground sprinting if he wins. Among his pledges: a 30% pay cut for himself, a voter-friendly 75% tax rate for those earning more than one million euros a year, an even more voter-friendly freezing of fuel prices for three months. If Ed Miliband tiptoed anywhere near such policies, save for the fuel price freeze, the newspapers would be dusting off "longest suicide note in history" headlines faster than you could say Red Ed.

Mr Sarkozy is essentially promising more of the same. Gone is all inspirational talk of the French working more to earn more. The incumbent, who has likened himself to the captain of a ship in the middle of a storm, is in batten-down-the-hatches mode. A balanced budget by 2016. Spending cut. Immigration curbed. France is to be made "fort" against trouble from within and without, whether it takes economic or religious extremist shape.

In pursuit of the latter, dawn raids on suspected militants have been taking place as regularly as election press briefings. Given the recent tragedy in Toulouse, in which seven people, three of them children, were murdered by an Islamist gunman claiming to have been trained by al-Qaeda, security has become a central issue in the campaign. After all sides stepped back from outright politicking in the face of such horror, the pressure to be seen to act, now or in the future, is mounting.

For those who already feel on the margins of society, the next few weeks could be a very long time in French politics.

Mr Sarkozy emerged from the terrorist outrage in Toulouse in a stronger position than might have been expected. Another president might have wilted when questioned about why the gunman, Mohamed Merah, wasn't picked up earlier when it was clear he was a danger. Mr Sarkozy is now in such a position of strength, indeed, that he has been able to preside over the subsequent raids and deportations of alleged extremists without the Left being able to criticise him too much. Mr Hollande, for example, when asked about the police actions of the past week, could only say that he wasn't questioning all that was being done. "I'm simply saying that we should have maybe done more before." A reasonable response, but compared to images of cops smashing down doors it lacks a certain lustre.

This, for France, has become the fear election. How people vote will depend on what they fear the most – immigration; persistently high unemployment; high public spending (currently standing at 56% of GDP, compared to Germany's 45% and the UK's 50%); crime; even the loss of French standing in the world.

Are the French "in denial" about the economic state they are in, as The Economist magazine argued this week?

That depends whether you believe the austerity diet is the only way for welfare-greedy, overfed Europe to go. And if you invest in that notion, then support for Mr Hollande could be regarded as collective madness on a Greek scale.

But is it? There is a country in the world that hasn't bought the line on austerity hook, line, and sinking hopes. A country where unemployment is falling and GDP rising, where savage cuts are seen as a last resort, not a first. A country hardly known for being a socialist republic. A country called the USA. Rumour has it that its President, too, is up for re-election.

French voters might well take a chance on Mr Hollande, believing he can find a happy medium, somewhere in the Atlantic, between European austerity and American optimism. If so, they will make good on their opinion poll promises and hand him victory. But if they go with the politics of economic fear to be found elsewhere in Europe, they will stick with Mr Sarkozy.

Fear or hope. A leap in the dark, or a necessary bound of the imagination. A turning point for Europe or a vote for the status quo. Oh to be in France now that elections are sprung.