THE longest-ever TV debate between two presidential candidates between election rounds is likely to have left most voters unswayed, was the consensus of the French press today.
With the latest polls showing François Hollande seven points in the lead, at 53.5% to 46.5%, the Socialist is still the favourite to win.
Unemployment, immigration, the economy, and nuclear power were among the topics touched on in the 2h50min face-off, watched by nearly 18 million.
Sarkozy defended his record, asking “what country has not known recession since 2009 – France”, while Hollande said France was still in “serious crisis” and regretted France’s economic performance compared to Germany. “We are at 0.7% growth while the Germans are over 1% and America 2%,” he said.
The president-candidate also defended France’s record on unemployment saying while it had risen 18.7% from 2007-2011, this was less than elsewhere in the Eurozone where it had risen 39.6%.
They traded insults, with Hollande accusing Sarkozy of having favoured the rich, while the president-candidate said “it’s a lie, you are a little slanderer”.
Accused of dividing the French people, he insisted he wanted to “speak to everyone, including those who do not share my ideas,” saying Hollande was a “party man”. Hollande retorted that it was not he who wanted to “distinguish real work from false work, good unionists from bad ones”.
Sarkozy made too many excuses, he said. “You always have a scapegoat: the regions, the economic crisis, it’s never your fault.”
He accused him of changing his mind, for example on the right of non-EU foreigners to vote in local elections. “You were in favour of it in 2008,” he said.
Sarkozy meanwhile pointed out inconsistency among the Socialists, asking why Hollande opposes a rise in VAT, when he said “Manuel Valls, your own spokesman, made it the main theme of his campaign during the Socialist primaries”.
He also demanded how Hollande planned to reduce deficits while increasing benefits.
On Europe, Hollande repeated his plan to renegotiate the EU’s economic crisis rescue pact and said he wanted to reorientate the EU from “generalised austerity”. He reiterated other manifesto pledges, like cuts to tax breaks for the rich or new teaching jobs.
Sarkozy meanwhile attacked him on nuclear power, saying he had “sold the workers”, by making a “pitiful” deal with the Greens.
He also latched on to Hollande’s claim to appeal to the voters by his “normality”. “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.
He appealed to Front National voters, claiming Hollande has to “put a clothes peg on his nose” to talk to them.
The consensus of commentators was, as Michel Urvoy said in Ouest France: “The main effect of this debate will have been to reinforce those who’ve already made up their minds, in their certainty.”
However opinions differed as to who “won”. Some opted for Hollande, such as Jean-Claude Souléry in La Dépèche du Midi, who said Sarkozy was too much on the defensive, “which is not his forte”. “We’ll see on Sunday, but last night he lost.”
However Le Figaro saw hope for Sarkozy still – other European leaders in Sarkozy’s position have lost in recent years, it said, “but they didn’t have opposite them François Hollande, with his dated language and ill-assorted left,” the paper said.
The BBC’s Hugh Schofield, in Paris, thought Sarkozy “won on points”, but gave no “knock-out blow”.
Photo: Chrisophe Ruseil FTV