Incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy will face Socialist challenger François Hollande in a live televised debate on Wednesday. The war of words could be Sarkozy's last chance to turn the tables on his popular rival before Sunday's election.
Click here for FRANCE 24’s “live blog” on the 2012 French presidential debate.
Current French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger François Hollande will go head-to-head in a live debate on national television Wednesday evening.
Sarkozy is generally considered to be the stronger debater, and with just four days to go before the country goes to the polls, the TV battle looks to be his last real chance to make a dent in Hollande’s lead in the opinion polls.
The debate, which traditionally takes place on the Wednesday before the final round of the country's presidential election, is seen as the climax of the campaign.
Taking its format from similar political debates in the US, the face-off between the leading candidates has been a fixture of French presidential elections since 1974, with the exception of 2002, when Jacques Chirac refused to go head-to-head with far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.
But even if Sarkozy is able to come out stronger during the debate, history is not on his side: past presidential debates have rarely influenced the outcome of elections.
Sarkozy wants to 'destroy' Hollande
The debate has been keenly anticipated by the 20 million French citizens expected to tune in at 9 pm on Wednesday.
Sarkozy is in a combative mood. He has said he will go into the debate "without any coaching", a jab at Hollande, whose agenda for the preceding 24 hours has been wiped clean in order for him to prepare.
Known for being pointedly aggressive in live debates, Sarkozy has reportedly told his aides that he is counting on "destroying" his opponent.
Hollande, meanwhile, has a reputation for evading difficult questions. Wednesday’s debate should give him the opportunity to "get his hands dirty", according to Stephane Rozès, head of the Paris-based political think tank CAP.
For his part, Hollande told French television last week he "hoped that the debate will be dignified".
Sarkozy, a ruthless debater
"Even though Hollande is ahead in the polls, he is going to have to be dynamic," said Rozès. "It is a much more dangerous situation for him than it is for Sarkozy."
According to the latest Ipsos Logica poll, Hollande will come out the winner in Sunday's election, with 53 percent of the vote. Sarkozy is banking on reversing Hollande's lead over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour debate.
"We've seen Sarkozy swing hard to the right after the first round," Rozes said, referring to the president's efforts to win over the 18 percent of the French electorate that cast ballots for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen on April 22. "But Sarkozy may again change his tactics at the last moment.
"He is a ruthless debater, and we can’t exclude the possibility that he will come out with some surprises, that he will stop being divisive and that he will do everything he can to highlight Hollande’s shortcomings."
And even if the majority of past debates have had little impact on voting patterns, Sarkozy may take heart from the precedent set by former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974, when the right-wing candidate famously silenced Socialist rival François Mitterrand by saying, "you do not have a monopoly on compassion."
This famous quote is often thought to have been the clincher in the 1974 election.
A level playing field
Meanwhile, a huge effort has gone into preparing the television studios for the debate. From the air conditioning level to the size of the table and the amount and position of the lighting, nothing has been left to chance.
Thierry Thullier of France 2, one of the channels hosting the debate, told FRANCE 24 on Tuesday that the preparation with partner broadcaster TF1 began nearly a month ago, with the choice of studio and the appointment of the head lighting technician and the director of the broadcast.
"We haven’t had any particular requests from either candidate," said Thullier. "But we are sticking to a rigid set of rules for the production."
Everything possible has been done to level the playing field as much as possible. The camera must be fixed on the candidate who is speaking, with no shots allowed of the other’s reactions. By a random draw, Hollande will be given the opening speech, while Sarkozy will close the debate.
"Both candidates will get a strictly equal amount of time, and neither of them can be seen to be given preferential treatment," Thullier said.
Date created : 2012-05-02