France presidential election: Who won TV debate?

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Media captionBoth candidates accused each other of lying - Courtesy TF1

The French only got the chance for one televised debate between Sunday's two presidential candidates, but my word, did it live up to expectations.

By turns passionate, confrontational, rowdy - even abusive - but also instructive and comprehensive, it must have kept viewers glued to their seats for the full three hours.

The tone was set in the first minutes, when - after Francois Hollande's measured, maybe ponderous, opening remarks about his three key principles: justice, recovery, unity - Nicolas Sarkozy went straight on the attack.

Scorning what he called Mr Hollande's "empty formulas", the incumbent president said that what the Socialist meant by rassemblement (bringing people together) applied "only to those who agree with you".

"Maybe that is what makes the difference between us," the president said.

There followed one of the many outbursts of ill-tempered cross-talking that was the despair of the two adjudicators, largely incomprehensible to the viewer. But it forcefully accentuated the drama of the occasion.

This was no polite exchange of views. It was a clash of personality, ambition and politics at the highest possible level.

'Nasty assumptions'

The format took the participants through a range of subjects: unemployment, the deficit, Europe, immigration, nuclear energy and Afghanistan.

The clock was carefully monitored so the two men had equal amounts of speaking time. But it must have been Mr Sarkozy's much quicker delivery, because he certainly appeared to be making more points.

The president was desperate for this chance to bring the election campaign back to what he thinks has been missing: a comparison of the two competing programmes.

He got his way.

On the economy, Mr Hollande spoke of his plans to cap petrol prices; create 60,000 teaching jobs over five years; end tax exemptions enjoyed by the wealthy; and set up a Public Investment Bank to put money into new projects.

Mr Sarkozy spoke of competitiveness, his planned rise in VAT to bring down the cost of taking on labour, and - against constant sniping from Mr Hollande - he vehemently defended the record of his five years in office.

On Europe, Mr Hollande repeated his pledge to renegotiate the budget pact, and "reorientate" the EU from the policies of "generalised austerity".

Mr Sarkozy attacked him for not being serious about the task of cutting the deficit.

"If you want to control your destiny, the first task is to bring down the debt," he said.

On immigration, both promised to reduce current levels - but there were angry exchanges over the right for non-EU foreigners to vote in local elections.

Mr Sarkozy, who opposes this, said it would open the door to "community-based" voting, with places with large Muslim populations choosing to have separate hours in swimming-pools for men and women.

Mr Hollande said Mr Sarkozy was making nasty assumptions about Muslims.

'Pontius Pilate' quip

What viewers will remember most, though, are some of the highly volatile moments when Mr Sarkozy's attacks were at their strongest.

Several times the president said Mr Hollande had "lied" - leading the Socialist to retort: "That word seems to come very easily to you."

On the nuclear industry, the president said Mr Hollande - in promising to reduce France's dependence on atomic power - had "sold the workers… on the altar of a pitiful political deal with the Greens".

He not-so-subtly got into the debate on Europe the fact that Mr Hollande had never once attended an EU summit.

And at one point he even said Mr Hollande was like "Pontius Pilate" for washing his hands (in Sarkozy's view) of the embarrassment of the Strauss-Kahn affair.

So who won?

It is an impossible question to answer, and every French man and woman will make up his own mind.

For my money, Mr Sarkozy clearly had the better of the argument.

He was combative and clear - fiercely fending off attacks by Mr Hollande on his personal integrity or his supposed "partisanship" in favour of the rich.

He made some telling strikes on Mr Hollande's economic programme, as well as on the Socialists' vaunted "normality".

"You speak of being a 'normal' president. But it's not a 'normal' job. De Gaulle, Pompidou, Mitterrand... these were not 'normal' men. Your 'normality' does not match the distinction of the office," he said.

Mr Hollande concentrated his attacks on Mr Sarkozy's record in office, allowing the president to appear more at grips with the challenges of the coming presidency.

And there were times when the Socialist appeared knocked off balance, as if his evidently decent self was not especially enjoying the encounter.

The Socialist did have his moments though, especially in the summing-up when he delivered a stirring peroration about how France would change under his rule.

And his mildness was in sharp contrast to Sarkozy's aggressivity - a difference which in many eyes will not have been to the president's advantaghe

"The choice is clear," he said. "To continue with you [Nicolas Sarkozy] or to change."

No knockout blow

Mr Sarkozy then concluded by directly appealing to voters for the far-right National Front - "unlike you I don't have to put a peg over my nose to talk to them" - as well as for supporters of the centrist Francois Bayrou.

To them, he held out the offer of a constitutional change mandating a balanced budget. That would be in line with the EU's controversial fiscal compact which Mr Hollande wants to renegotiate.

"It is a dangerous world, a difficult world, where decisions have to be taken, a course has to be set, responsibility has to be assumed," Mr Sarkozy said.

Nicolas Sarkozy, I reckon, won on points. But as he himself knows, what he needed was a knockout blow.

And I don't think he got it.

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