The TV debate between incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, right, and his Socialist… (AFP/Getty Images )
PARIS — It was billed as a political duel to the death.
In the right corner, Nicolas Sarkozy, incumbent president seeking reelection but trailing badly in opinion polls. In the left, Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, favored to winFrance's presidential runoff Sunday but facing an aggressive rival with nothing to lose.
The pair's only live television debate, it had been described by Sarkozy as "the moment of truth." And, as possibly his last chance to turn his fortunes around, Sarkozy had vowed to "explode" his rival.
The combative exchange, which lasted 2 1/2 hours, was watched by about 20 million people, almost half ofFrance'svoters.
The rules of engagement were not exactly Queensbury, but they were similarly precise: The candidates' chairs were to be adjusted so each man appeared to be the same height — Sarkozy is just over 5-foot-5, Hollande is slightly more than 2 inches taller.
The chairs were to exactly 2.45 meters apart, or just over 8 feet, to avoid any physical contact. There were to be no colors that might suggest political allegiance, especially no shades of red or blue, so both men wore funereal dark suits, white shirts and somber ties. The cameras were to be fixed and show only the candidate speaking, with no cutaway shots. Or as one French magazine put it, no fancy direction a la Francis Ford Coppola.
Watching Sarkozy in verbal action is always an edge-of-the-chair experience. The president has a notoriously short fuse, and there is often a sense that anything might happen, even though it probably won't.
Until Wednesday evening, the men had thrown insults from a distance. Sarkozy has called Hollande "incompetent" and a "liar." Hollande has branded Sarkozy a "failed" president and "a nasty piece of work."
On Wednesday night, it was face to face. Staring Hollande in the eye, Sarkozy railed against those on the left who he said had likened him to fascists such as Spain's Gen. Francisco Franco, Marshal Philippe Petain of France's collaborationist Vichy regime and, he added, "why not Hitler?" He criticized Hollande for not condemning the attacks.
Hollande riposted: "Mr. Sarkozy, you'd be hard-pressed to portray yourself as a victim." The Socialist said he had been likened to all manner of "zoo animals" but did not hold Sarkozy personally responsible. "I condemn all excesses."
The debate revealed what the public cannot have failed to notice in a long election campaign: The two men have polar opposite views of how to deal with just about everything. They butt heads over how to counter the effects of the global economic crisis — Hollande supports higher taxes and encouraging growth, Sarkozy austerity cuts and savings — how to lower an unemployment rate that hovers just under 10%, an 11-year high, and how to reduce public debt that has seen France lose its triple-A credit rating.
Hollande pointed out that French public debt is so high that the second-highest state expenditure, after education, is making interest repayments.
Sarkozy described Hollande's economic program as "spending madness."
Both candidates want to balance the books, Hollande in 2017, Sarkozy in 2016.
The pair then began squabbling over the figures.
After Sarkozy accused him of "calumnies and lies," Hollande replied, "You think you can just say anything. This is your method, you cannot maintain a reasoned argument without being disagreeable."
Sarkozy's tactic during the debate seemed to be to ask rhetorical questions.
At one point, the pair began arguing about what constituted "rich."
"You want fewer rich, I want fewer poor, that's the difference between us, Mr. Hollande," Sarkozy said.
"I protect the children of the republic, you protect the privileged," Hollande replied.
There was little agreement on immigration as well. In an attempt to attract the nearly 18% of ballots cast for the far-right National Front in the first-round vote, Sarkozy has hardened his stance regarding immigration.
Sarkozy said France had "welcomed too many people," and he wants to reduce the number by half, to 100,000 a year. Hollande has said he would reform immigration but he denies that there are "too many legal immigrants" in France, saying that Sarkozy had been responsible for immigration for the last decade, five years as interior minister and then as president.
The latest surveys give Hollande a lead of up to 10 percentage points over Sarkozy in Sunday's vote.
Willsher is a special correspondent.