French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s re-election bid got tougher yesterday, after failing to land a much-needed knockout blow on Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande in a sole, bitter televised debate.
Wednesday’s debate was ferocious, with many French commentators surprised at Hollande’s combativeness, while allies of Sarkozy — called hyperactive and aggressive in the past — now accusing Hollande of the same.
Sarkozy had been expected to dominate, but instead Hollande shed his image of a soft, consensus builder to repeatedly attack the incumbent, countering his critics and improving his presidential stature ahead of Sunday’s run-off.
Sarkozy himself said yesterday that “an election has never been so uncertain” and the runoff “is going to be very close.”
“I thought it would be bitter and it was ... but the debate was about my proposals,” said Hollande, who repeatedly preceded his policy proposals with “I, as president ...”
Newspaper editorials agreed that the debate “would not bring about an electoral earthquake,” with Hollande predicted to win Sunday’s runoff with 53 to 54 percent of votes, according to opinion polls.
With the right-wing incumbent having trailed in opinion polls for more than six months, Sarkozy several times calls Hollande a “liar” and “arrogant.”
Hollande’s response was just as fierce and sometimes mocking, accusing Sarkozy of refusing to take responsibility for his record and of self-satisfaction in a period of grim economic crisis for many voters.
A total of 17.79 million people watched the almost three-hour duel, audience monitor Mediametrie said, down from the 20.4 million who watched Hollande’s former partner, Socialist Segolene Royal, take on Sarkozy in 2007.
The pro-Sarkozy Le Figaro had a surprisingly neutral headline “High tension,” although an editorial laid into Hollande’s roots in a left wing that is better at “speaking about its past than imagining the future.”
“Hollande had the advantage of never having exercised power. An enormous advantage when taking on a president whose time in office has been marked by an unprecedented financial crisis,” Paul-Henri du Limbert wrote.
The left-leaning Liberation daily headlined “Hollande presides over the debate,” with an editorial noting that the two men “clearly wanted a fight.”
“The damaging, violent political climate of the end of this campaign also reigned in the dark studio hosting the debate,” Nicolas Demorand wrote.
Le Figaro was the only newspaper still predicting a possible Sarkozy victory against Hollande, with his “dated language and a disparate left.”
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant, a close aide to Sarkozy, said that Hollande was “full of arrogance, full of self-importance,” while also admitting that he had been “very pugnacious” during the debate.
The head of Sarkozy’s UMP party, Francois Cope, said that voters would “shuffle the deck” between the two rounds.
“Sarkozy pushed Hollande ever further back, to the point that Hollande stumbled, which he immediately made up for with a certain aggression,” Cope said.
Two days before campaigning ends tonight, the runoff candidates were to hold rallies yesterday on friendly territory: Toulon in the southeast for Sarkozy and Toulouse in the southwest for Hollande.
Centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou, who won 3.3 million votes in the first round, was to say yesterday what his position is, having said he was waiting for the head-on debate before “taking his responsibilities.”