Sarkozy, Hollande spar but no knockout blow dealt


It’s up to the opinion polls now to reveal if the French president did enough last night to win over the 1.5 million voters he needs, writes RUADHÁN Mac CORMAICin Paris

IT WAS as if their roles were reversed, Nicolas Sarkozy playing the feisty challenger and François Hollande cast as the cautious incumbent trying to project statesmanlike poise.

Some 20 million people – almost a third of the French population – tuned in last night to watch Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande, the two candidates for the French presidency, face one another in the traditional eve-of-election TV debate.

“I want to tell you tonight what kind of president I will be if the French people give me their confidence,” Mr Hollande began gravely. 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.

Presenting himself as a “president of justice” who would end the privileges of the few and unite France, he sought to portray Mr Sarkozy as divisive and partisan.

“I want this to be a moment of truth,” Mr Sarkozy replied. “It’s a historic choice. We don’t have room for error in this crisis we’re experiencing.” In a highly charged, often technical debate, Mr Sarkozy 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.” Trailing Mr Hollande in opinion polls four days before the run-off, Mr Sarkozy billed the debate – broadcast live on six channels – as a decisive moment in the campaign.

Wearing solemn dark ties and facing one another directly across a spartan table, the two men sparred over domestic and foreign policy for more than 2½ hours.

Mr Sarkozy pledged to balance France’s budget by 2016, Hollande by 2017, but each accused the other of failing to reveal how to reduce spending. “I haven’t heard you specify one way of cutting spending,” said Mr Sarkozy.

France’s high unemployment and loss of competitiveness led to sharp exchanges, with Mr Hollande dwelling on his opponent’s promise in 2007 to bring joblessness down to 5 per cent (it’s currently just below 10 per cent).

When Mr Sarkozy dismissed as untenable his promise to hire 60,000 new teachers, he responded with what sounded like a prepared riposte: “I will protect the children of the Republic. You will protect the most privileged.” On Europe, there were relatively few differences. Mr Hollande reiterated his intention to renegotiate the fiscal treaty to add pro-growth components. In reply, Mr Sarkozy said he agreed with most of the proposals the socialist had outlined but insisted the treaty could not be reopened.

Accused by Mr Hollande of having won no concessions from Germany, the president said he had secured a deal on governance structures in the euro zone and more flexibility from the European Central Bank. “Saying France got nothing from Germany is just false,” he said.

Positioning himself as the leader who steered France safely through the euro crisis, Mr Sarkozy stressed his role in “saving Greece” and “saving the euro from implosion”. “Did you think it was easy, Mr Hollande?” On immigration, a contentious topic in the past week, Mr Hollande said he agreed that the flow of inward economic migrants should be reduced and accused the right of having overseen a rise in new arrivals.

“We have received too many people, and that has paralysed our integration system... We have to reduce it,” the incumbent agreed.

Barring major events between now and Sunday, last night’s debate was seen as Mr Sarkozy’s last chance to take a substantial chunk out of his rival’s lead. “Sarkozy needs to swing 1.5 million people to his side. It won’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” Bernard Sananes, head of the CSA polling institute, said before the debate began.

Attention will now turn to the opinion polls to see if Sarkozy did enought to turn the tide.


Poll standings

Nicolas Sarkozy went into last night’s debate trailing François Hollande by a consistent margin in all opinion polls.

Several surveys have shown him closing the gap slightly in recent days, with the latest from Ifop giving Hollande 54 per cent (down 0.5) and Sarkozy 46 per cent (up 0.5).

The most revealing poll findings are those that show how people who voted for eliminated candidates in the first round on April 22nd intend to vote on Sunday. According to Ifop, Hollande will take 80 per cent of voters from the left-wing radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon, compared to 6 per cent for Sarkozy. Those who preferred the centrist François Bayrou are quite evenly split, with 31 per cent going to Sarkozy, 28 per cent Hollande and the remaining 41 per cent saying they will abstain. Sarkozy cannot win, according to pollsters, unless he attracts at least 60 per cent of votes from those who supported far-right leader Marine Le Pen. As of yesterday, however, just 43 per cent of Le Pen voters were switching to the incumbent, while 18 per cent were going to Hollande and 39 per cent didn’t know.

The experience card

One of the recurring arguments used by the Sarkozy camp against Hollande is his lack of experience. They point out that the socialist never served in government or ran a big city, and enjoy reminding Hollande’s supporters of what his former partner, Ségolène Royal, said of him during the socialist primary campaign last autumn: “Can you tell me one thing François Hollande has achieved in 30 years?” Sarkozy returned to this ground yesterday. Asked whether Hollande was a tougher opponent than he had expected, the president replied: “I’ve never underestimated anyone. The question you should ask is why did [the socialist former president] François Mitterrand never give executive responsibility to François Hollande ... He is the same age as me. He talks a lot about my record, but at least I’ve done things.”

DSK’s long shadow

Anne Sinclair, wife of former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has cancelled plans to appear as a TV panellist on election results night.

This follows her husband’s return to the headlines earlier this week, when his presence at a party in Paris prompted three of Hollande’s close aides to leave for fear of being associated with him. According to yesterday’s Canard Enchaîné, Hollande himself had intended to go along to the same party on Saturday night, but avoided it at the last minute when his communications director phoned to warn him to stay away.

Friendly advice

As he was preparing for last night’s debate, one person whose advice Hollande was keen to hear was Ségolène Royal, his former partner and mother of his four children. Royal, of course, was the last socialist to have taken on Sarkozy in a presidential debate, in 2007. She is widely thought to have lost that debate, but said yesterday that wasn’t how either she or Sarkozy felt immediately afterwards.

“Nicolas Sarkozy had the feeling that he lost the debate,” she said, whereas she thought she had done well. The lesson, according to Royal, is that a second – equally important – battle begins the minute the debate ends. In other words, whoever does the best job of persuading people he won will have done so.