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Sarkozy and Hollande trade barbs in heated TV debate

In the first and only televised debate ahead of Sunday’s vote, incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist rival François Hollande traded barbs as they faced off on a number of issues ranging from economic policies to immigration.


It was billed as “The Final Confrontation” and that’s exactly what millions of TV viewers across France got Wednesday night as incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy squared off against his Socialist challenger, François Hollande, in an intensely contested face-off, the only debate of the 2012 campaign.

With just four days to go before Sunday’s final round of the presidential poll, the stakes were high as Hollande kicked off the debate with a ferocious attack on what he called Sarkozy’s track record of dividing the French people, adding that if he were elected, the Socialist politician would be a “president for justice”.

In a quick rebuttal - the sort that characterised the contentious tone of the debate - Sarkozy shot back: “Bringing people together – what a beautiful idea. But it’s not just words, it’s facts that matter,” before noting that during his tenure as president, Sarkozy managed to implement controversial policies such as pension reforms without massive street protests.

The much-anticipated debate kicked off at 9pm local time at a TV studio north of Paris with the two candidates facing each other across a table mounted with two digital clocks to monitor the speaking time of each candidate.

Moderated by leading French TV presenters, David Pujadas of France 2 and Laurence Ferrari of TF1, Wednesday’s debate was broadcast live by several French TV stations, reaching roughly half of France's 44.5 million voters.

In a wide-ranging debate that included economic policies, immigration issues as well as foreign policy initiatives, the two candidates repeatedly clashed as they reeled out statistics, frequently accused each other of citing incorrect figures, and were not above taking the occasional personal jabs at each other.

Hollande’s strategy centered on criticising the French president’s economic policies during his five years in office, a period that saw France lose its AAA credit rating and the number of jobless people reach four million.

But Sarkozy took a critical position from the start, maintaining he was being unfairly blamed for France's economic problems after years of crisis, and insisted he's not "the only guilty one.''

Unfazed by his conservative opponent’s defense, Hollande riposted, “Mr. Sarkozy, you would have a hard time passing for a victim. It's never your fault. You always have a scapegoat.''

Sarkozy goes on the offensive

Known to be a formidable debater, Sarkozy had pushed for more debates against Hollande, a challenge the Socialist candidate turned down, making Wednesday’s debate not just the final, but also the high point of a campaign that many critics have described as being lacklustre.

Sarkozy came to the debate Wednesday night as the underdog, with a mission to chip away at the seven-point lead Hollande holds in opinion polls.

Fighting for his political career, Sarkozy criticized Hollande's economic plans, arguing that the leftist politician’s promise to add 60,000 new civil service jobs in an already bloated administration would send France's debt sky high.

For his part, Hollande criticised Sarkozy’s tax reforms as being too friendly to the rich, adding, “frankly, this is becoming unbearable”.

Sarkozy countered by repeatedly noting that France is the only country in Europe that has kept the wealth tax before scoffing, “Saying that we offered gifts to the rich ... is slander. It's a lie.''

It was not the first time one of the men accused the other of lying, but this time, Hollande simply smiled.

Body language and a surprisingly combative Hollande

The body language of the two men in the course of the two-and-a-half hour debate spoke volumes, with Sarkozy taking a predatory position from the outset, frequently jabbing his fingers at his opponent. Hollande, in contrast, sat back and appeared less physically animated.

But he was nevertheless verbally combative - surprisingly so, according to FRANCE 24’s political editor Marc Perelman.

“It got very personal and what’s rather surprising is that François Hollande was feistier than people thought he would be,” said Perelman. “He didn’t allow Nicolas Sarkozy to finish his sentences, he attacked him, calling him a liar. François Hollande wanted to make sure he didn’t look defensive and that he can also throw punches at Nicolas Sarkozy.”

Common ground on immigration and integration

On the issue of the integration of France’s Muslim population, the two candidates appeared to share common ground, as Hollande maintained that if he were elected, he will “apply the law” banning the burqa across France.

Sarkozy held firm on his tough stance on immigration, calling for a limit on the number of immigrants France takes in and maintaining that “borders are not a bad word''.

The French president has been waging an aggressive bid to destabilize his Socialist rival who won the April 22 first round with 28.6% of the vote while the incumbent came second with 27.8%. But opinion polls have consistently shown Hollande with a comfortable lead in the May 6 second round.

In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, both candidates have an eye on the 18% of the vote won by far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen. The leader of the National Front party has refused to endorse either of the two candidates contesting the May 6 runoff.

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