Sarkozy combative in fierce debate

By Catherine Field

A presidential election campaign this weekend enters its final stages with Nicolas Sarkozy believing his appeals to France's squeezed middle classes and disgruntled workers will secure him a second term in office against all the odds.

Mustering the desperate energy of a man who sees defeat but glimpses a way to snatch victory, Sarkozy staged a show of strength on May Day and followed this with a TV debate, witnessed by a third of the country, where he rained verbal blows on the Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande.

The pair scheduled final gatherings of their supporters today - Hollande in Toulouse, Sarkozy in Toulon - before an officially-mandated halt to campaigning.

Last week, opinion polls gave Hollande France's top job by around 55 to 45 per cent, but this has narrowed to some 53 to 47 per cent in the countdown to Monday. By such counts, Sarkozy is next on the list of European chiefs who have been felled by the continent's financial crisis.

But the President's supporters say these estimates are worthless in the privacy of the polling booth. He needs one and a half million votes, and these can be found among centrists and far-right voters who accounted for nearly 30 per cent of the tally in the first round and among the several million undecided, they argue.

"All of the political leaders who have had to face a major election in Europe since 2008 have found themselves in a similar situation," said the conservative daily Le Figaro. "And all of them have lost. But they were not running against Francois Hollande, with his dated language and ramshackle left."

The TV debate showed Sarkozy at his combative best, weaving like a boxer as he tossed out figures like jabs and uppercuts against a stolid opponent. The tone at times turned ugly, as Sarkozy branded Hollande a "liar" or a "little slanderer" for attacking his record in power while Hollande sneered at Sarkozy for "protecting the most privileged" by awarding tax breaks to tycoons. By the stiff courtesies of past presidential face-offs, this was mud-wrestling.

Neither side delivered a knockout blow, but Hollande struck the right posture of presidential cool as Sarkozy goaded and gesticulated, analysts said.

Even so, the socialist failed to deflect Sarkozy's sharp probing of his tax-and-spend economic proposals or his more moderate stance on tackling illegal immigration. The first issue is being closely scrutinised by France's middle classes, which are more and more worried by the fiscal burden, while the second is dear to far-right supporters, whose decisions will weigh most heavily.

Around 20 million of France's population of 60 million watched the debate. By comparison 15.38 million watched the rugby World Cup final last year.

Teams of advisors wrangled for days over the studio setup of the duel, haggling over such details as the style and height of the chair, the distance between the pair and camera angles. At Sarkozy's behest, the studio added a small airconditioner near the table. In the 2007 TV debate against Segolene Royal - Hollande's former partner and mother of their four children - Sarkozy became uncomfortably hot.

The joust came a day after Sarkozy mustered his supporters at a massive rally before the Eiffel Tower, going on the offensive against Hollande on the traditional workers' day of May 1.

He also tilted to the right, pounding away on law-and-order issues and at what he says is excessive immigration, in an attempt to seduce the supporters of National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Her 18 per cent show in the first round on April 22 was the highest ever by the far right and made her kingmaker.

Sarkozy's tactic stunned many liberals in the governing Union for a Popular Majority (UMP), who say the National Front should remain beyond the pale and fear the party is a loser by venturing on to its terrain. Defence Minister Gerard Longuet even dangled the possibility of contact or dialogue with Le Pen, saying she was a possible "interlocutor."

But at her own May 1 rally, Le Pen spat out her derision for Hollande and Sarkozy and said she would cast a blank vote on Monday. She told her supporters: "Follow your conscience."

Whoever takes the crown will soon be back on the campaign trail, for there are elections next month for the National Assembly.

The next president faces an array of great challenges, starting with reviving a stagnant economy, reducing France's budget deficit and tackling rising unemployment, with joblessness affecting one in 10 of the working population.

He will also have some major fence-mending to do with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union (EU). Sarkozy has demanded changes to the border-free Schengen zone of the EU, while Hollande is insisting on a reworking of the EU's fiscal pact, which Merkel says is the euro's lifeline.

- NZ Herald

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