French candidates face off in crucial debate

President Nicolas Sarkozy uses aggressive tactics against challenger Francois Hollande ahead of Sunday elections.

    France's two presidential contenders have started a nationally televised debate that has been preceded by the kind of dramatic build-up normally reserved for a heavyweight boxing championship.

    The prime-time debate on Wednesday between conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and his leftist challenger Francois Hollande was billed in newspaper headlines as "The Last Duel" and "The Final Confrontation", providing a sense of suspense in a campaign that, if polls are right, has lacked it from the beginning.

    Surveys continue to predict that Hollande will defeat the divisive Sarkozy in Sunday's decisive presidential runoff. Experts say past debates have never swung a French election, regardless of who comes off better in the televised showdown.

    In a sign Sarkozy was preparing for a do-or-die moment, former prime minister and party ally Jean-Pierre Raffarin said the debate would be "very intense".

    "Nicolas Sarkozy goes into the debate like a challenger, so he's going to have to take a certain number of risks," Raffarin said on French radio France-Info.

    Al Jazeera's Andrews Simmons, reporting from Paris, described the debate as the "absolutely crucial" for Sarkozy.

    "[Sarkozy] is hoping for a knock-out blow. He will come out with swagger. He will push hard because he thinks he has nothing to lose at this stage," our correspondent said.

    Sarkozy attacks

    Sarkozy has been waging an aggressive bid to destabilise the even-keeled, some say plodding, Hollande, a longtime Socialist Party boss who's never held high government office.

    Already last month, Sarkozy was telling close confidants that he would "atomise" and "rip to shreds" Hollande in the debate, according to French media reports.

    Sarkozy also tried, and failed, to get Hollande to agree to a total of three debates, then spent days taunting his rival.

    Sarkozy knows he is the underdog. Not a single poll has predicted he will win re-election, and leading figures in his government are already lining up new jobs.

    The latest polls give Hollande a seven-point victory margin, with only a tenth of those polled saying the debate could possibly change their vote.

    In recent televised interviews, Sarkozy has been defensive, painting himself as a victim of the media and "a Stalinist trial".

    At campaign rallies, he's combative and energetic, his crisp white shirts soaked with sweat within minutes of taking the podium.

    Barbs traded

    In Wednesday's debate, moderators from two of France's main evening news programmes focused their questioning on jobs and the economy, the issues that French voters have repeatedly put at the top of their concerns going into the election.

    Sarkozy looked to score points against the normally unflappable Hollande, much as Sarkozy did when debating Socialist Segolene Royal in the 2007 presidential election. Royal and Hollande were longtime companions and had four children together.

    In that debate, Sarkozy goaded his opponent into erupting in anger, then shot her down with a dismissive, "You become unhinged very easily, Madame. To be president of the republic, one must be calm. ... I don't know why Mrs Royal, who's usually calm, has lost her calm."

    Sarkozy and Hollande have debated several times in the past, but never for such high stakes. Hollande, admired for his facility with a witty one-liner, has shown that he can give as well as he can take in clashes with Sarkozy.

    In a 1998 televised confrontation, when the two were heads of their respective parties, Hollande needled a stalling Sarkozy for an answer, until Sarkozy snapped "You're so impatient for my response".

    "Yes, well you've been a bit slow giving it," Hollande replied.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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