Nicolas Sarkozy hammers at François Hollande in live debate but fails to land killer blow
A DRAWN and defensive Nicolas Sarkozy repeatedly called his Socialist opponent François Hollande a "liar" and a "slanderer" but failed to land any knock-out punches in a tense televised duel seen as the last chance to save his re-election bid.
At least twenty million French – around half of the French electorate – tuned in to watch Mr Sarkozy fight for his political life and see whether he would make good his pledge to “atomise” his left-wing rival during the almost three-hour clash.
Trailing Mr Hollande in the polls by at least seven points ahead of Sunday's presidential runoff, this was the Right-winger's best hope of catching up to defy the odds.
But confounding rival claims that he is indecisive and soft, Hollande came across as confident and unusually combative, accusing Mr Sarkozy of dividing the French people for five years and using the global economic crisis as an excuse for failing to curb unemployment and debt. "With you it's very simple: it's never your fault," Mr Hollande said.
When the conservative complained Mr Hollande had stood by while the Left-wing media branded him a fascist, the Socialist replied: "Mr Sarkozy, you would have a hard time passing for a victim or a lamb.”
Increasingly frustrated, a jerky Mr Sarkozy repeatedly accused his opponent of lying as the pair tussled over economic figures.
"Mr Hollande. When you lie so shamelessly, do I have to accept it?" he asked when his opponent said the president was always happy with his record.
"It's a lie. It's a lie. It's a lie," Mr Sarkozy said.
“I’ll take that as a complement coming from you,” Mr Hollande shot back.
"The example I want to follow is Germany and not Spain or Greece," the President said, declaring that he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had saved Greece and the euro.
"Europe has got over it," Mr Sarkozy said of the crisis .
Mr Hollande replied: "Europe has not got over it. Europe is today facing a possible resurgence of the crisis with generalised austerity, and that's what I don't want."
He accused Mr Sarkozy of failing to stand up to Germany, saying: “You didn’t compromise, you failed to hold your own”, promising if elected to “re-orient Europe towards growth”.
Mr Sarkozy sounded convincing when he said: "I haven’t heard you speak of a single saving, not one, notably with 60,000 new posts in education. He said his rival’s "spending madness" would be the ruin of France.
But Mr Hollande responded that he would make savings, the difference being: "I protect the children of the Republic, you protect the most privileged.”
"You want less rich people, I want less poor people," said Mr Sarkozy.
Mr Hollande hit straight back: "With you, there are more poor people and the rich have got richer."
In a sign of desperation and sensing he was losing the fight, Mr Sarkozy said: “I have no lessons to learn from a party that wanted to rally behind Dominique Strauss-Kahn,” the disgraced former IMF leader.
The stakes were high for Mr Sarkozy as defeat in the second round runoff on Sunday would make him the first president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1981 to fail in a bid for re-election.
"Sarkozy needs to swing 1.5 million people to his side. It won't be easy, but that doesn't mean it's impossible," said Bernard Sananes, head of the CSA polling institute.
Every detail had been meticulously planned, right down to the temperature of the TV studio - between 19 and 20 degrees. Each rival his own air conditioning system and a height-adjustable chair.
Twenty TV cameras scrutinised the contenders’ every move as they sat eight feet apart across a table, with rivals agreeing that there should be no cutaways of one candidate listening while the other speaks.
Presidential debates can be game changers but only in a close race. The best put-down to date was in 1988 when Jacques Chirac, then Mr Mitterrand’s prime minister, told his rival: “Tonight you are not the President and I’m not the Prime Minister. We are two equal candidates...You will thus allow me to call you Mr Mitterrand.”
“But you are totally right, Mr Prime Minister,” came Mitterrand’s withering reply.
Mr Sarkozy hazarded one line, saying: "Being president is not a normal, your normality is not up to the task.” But Mr Hollande looked confident enough to take up the job.
The two candidates are due to hold final mass rallies – Mr Hollande in the Socialist bastion of Toulouse, and Mr Sarkozy in Right-leaning Toulon.