French elections 88.
(photo credit: )
The two dynamic and very different candidates to be France's next president faced off Wednesday in their first and last televised debate of the campaign, a highly anticipated encounter before the weekend vote, and sparks flew almost from the start.
Socialist Segolene Royal, struggling in her quest to become France's first woman president, went immediately on the offensive, criticizing Nicolas Sarkozy's record as a minister in President Jacques Chirac's government before he became a candidate for the presidency.
Sarkozy, leading in the polls and looking to get through the debate unscathed, was scrupulously polite and did not rise to Royal's baiting. The conservative addressed her as "madame" and, after she repeatedly interrupted him in a discussion about policing and crime, said, "Will you let me reply?"
She wore a dark jacket; he a suit and tie. But their differences were more than one of style. An immediate bone of contention was France's 35-hour work week - a landmark reform for Socialists, but decried by business leaders as a crippling brake on companies.
Sarkozy wants to get around the 35-hour week by making overtime tax-free, to encourage people to work more. He described the measure, introduced by the Socialists in the 1990s, as a "monumental error," and noted that no other country in Europe has followed France's lead.
Royal defended the 35-hour work week as a form of social progress and asked why the government in which Sarkozy was part had not gotten rid of the legislation if it was so opposed. Again, Royal cut Sarkozy off during the discussion.
"Will you let me finish?" he asked.
"No," said Royal.
"Ah," said Sarkozy.
The live duel by candidates could draw more than 20 million viewers in a nation re-energized by its hunger for change after 12 years under Chirac.
"It's the culmination point of the campaign," former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who supports Sarkozy, said on RTL radio. He said the debate would be "decisive," and credited his own performance in a debate with Socialist Francois Mitterrand for his victory in 1974. Mitterrand won the presidency the next time around, in 1981.
Sarkozy and Royal were the last two candidates standing after the April 22 first round in which Sarkozy won 31.2 percent and Royal had 25.9 percent, with 10 rival candidates across the political spectrum taking up the remainder.
Royal's underdog bid has gathered some momentum recently.
She outdid Sarkozy on Tuesday with a larger rally in Paris than one he had over the weekend.
Also Tuesday, far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who placed fourth with 4 million votes, urged his supporters to abstain Sunday. Polls show his voters were more likely to back Sarkozy than Royal, and it could cut into Sarkozy's support if they stay home.
Sarkozy, who has held a lead in the polls since January, sought to calm speculation before the showdown that it could be decisive.
"I don't think the French choose a president on the lone impression that they'll have after a two-hour debate," he told France-Inter radio Wednesday before the television appearance.
The last head-to-head presidential-race debate, pitting Jacques Chirac against Socialist Lionel Jospin in 1995, drew 17 million viewers. Chirac won the first of his two terms that year. In 2002, he refused to debate Le Pen, who stunned much of France by ousting Jospin and other contenders in the first round.