NICHOLAS Sarkozy needed a miracle last night to head off a defeat that looks increasingly inevitable. A marathon, at times violent debate with Francois Hollande was his chance to knock the challenger off his increasingly confident stride. But despite some brutal exchanges, he failed to produce a killer blow.
Twenty million people were expected to tune in for a contest that lasted nearly three hours and was broadcast on all networks. It was a real debate, the presenters reduced to mute timekeepers as the candidates knocked spots off each other.
There was no quarter given. Mr Sarkozy called his opponent a liar and suggested he should have known about fellow socialist Dominique Strauss Kahn’s varied sex life; Mr Hollande described him as arrogant and tried to smear him back by raising a corruption scandal.
On Europe, taxes, immigration and above all what the character of a president should be, they argued over detail – often to impenetrable depth - and levelled charges of dishonesty and bad faith against each other. They even dredged up decades-old accusations of political double dealing.
As a television spectacle it was riveting and prompted thoughts of putting David Cameron and Ed Miliband through this kind of ordeal, in which flaws and strengths are laid bare.
The public did not learn anything new about Mr Sarkozy. The characteristics that for many voters have become intolerable – his energy, his temper, the aggression he has used to shore up his vote on the right – were on display. So was his formidable capacity to master detail, and his undeniable passion for the role.
The campaign in fact was about discovering Mr Hollande, a veteran of the political scene who until last night was a blank sheet for most voters.
His reputation as a grey figure, a bit flabby – his colleagues refer to him as Flanby, a brand of French flan – with no noticeable charisma has been praised by his supporters as an antidote to Mr Sarkozy’s ‘bling’ presidency. But others fear that he is too soft to cope with the rigours of the job.
In that sense Mr Hollande will have benefited from the debate. For a start, voters saw him defending successfully his questionable policies on tax, Europe and immigration. But they also saw him keep his cool, and stand up to Mr Sarkozy’s hectoring. And he found a compelling way of describing the kind of president he would be, privileging the dignity of the office and implicitly distancing himself from the interfering practices of Mr Sarkozy.
The debate is likely to seal a remarkable victory.