Sarkozy, Hollande go head to head


French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist rival Francois Hollande are going head to head this evening in their
only television debate seen as the conservative incumbent's last chance to turn the odds of re-election in his favour.

Trailing Mr Hollande in opinion polls for Sunday's decisive runoff despite an aggressive campaign and a lurch to the right to appeal to far-right votes, Mr Sarkozy billed the prime-time debate as the "moment of truth" in the race.

Wearing solemn dark ties and facing one another directly across a spartan table, the two men sparred over unemployment and competitiveness, Mr Hollande constantly bringing the discussion back to the incumbent’s record and Mr Sarkozy highlighting the socialist’s lack of government experience.

Mr Hollande appeared more confident and relaxed in the opening exchanges, saying he aimed to be "the president of justice", "the president of revival" and "the president of unity". He said Mr Sarkozy, in office for the last five years, had divided the French people for too long and was using the global economic crisis as an excuse for broken promises.

"With you it's very simple: it's never your fault," Mr Hollande said.

Mr Sarkozy, fighting for his political life, repeatedly accused his opponent of lying about economic figures and reeled off reams of statistics in an attempt to unbalance his rival.

"It's all very nice to talk about uniting people, but it has to be put into practice," the president said. "The example I
want to follow is Germany and not Spain or Greece."

He said France had no alternative to cutting its debt and deficit.

"Growth, yes, but not at the expense of cutting debt and deficit," he added. He reiterated his opposition to "euro bonds," or bonds issued jointly by euro countries.

"Who will guarantee them if it's not France and Germany," he said. "Should we raise our debt  to pay the debts of others? It's irresponsible."

The duel is being beamed live for two-and-a-half hours from 7pm Irish time on channels that reach roughly half France's 44.5 million voters. A senior Sarkozy ally said the president planned to storm in as the "challenger" to Hollande, who leads by 6-10 points in polls.

"Nicolas Sarkozy is approaching this debate as a challenger and he will undoubtedly take risks," said former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a senior figure in the ruling UMP party and an advisor to the president. "It will be very intense."

The conservative president and his centre-left rival have duelled at a distance for months, with Mr Sarkozy accusing Mr Hollande of being incompetent and a liar, and Mr Hollande branding the incumbent a "failed president" and "a nasty piece of work".

Mr Sarkozy spent most of the day holed up at home preparing for the two-and-a-half hour duel against the Socialist who, despite his bland manner, is a quick-witted and nimble debater.

"I think Nicolas Sarkozy could come out with some surprises tonight because he is playing double or quits," far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose 6.4 million first-round voters will be crucial to Sunday's vote, told foreign media.

Mr Sarkozy received a setback yesterday when Ms Le Pen - whose 17.9 per cent score was the shock of the first round - refused to endorse him. She vowed at a Paris rally to cast a blank vote and told her supporters to make their own choice.The issue of how to deal with the anti-immigration crusader and her supporters continues to torment Mr Sarkozy's UMP party.

Senior party leaders rebuked Defence Minister Gerard Longuet for telling an extreme-right weekly that Le Pen could be an "interlocutor" for the mainstream right.

Immigration and trade protectionism were likely to feature in the debate after a TNS Sofres poll found 37 per cent of voters agreed with the National Front's positions, the highest level since 1984. Just over half said France had too many immigrants.

Mr Hollande, less encumbered by the need to address the far right, has rejected Mr Sarkozy's taunt that he was "chicken" for turning down a challenge to hold two extra debates.

"Let him come to the debate this evening and ask his questions," Mr Hollande told BFM TV. "Frankly, the only question which needs to be asked is, do the French want the same failed policies of the last five years?"