French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist rival Francois Hollande are set to clash in their only television debate on Wednesday seen as the conservative incumbent’s last chance to turn the odds of re-election in his favour.
Trailing 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, Sarkozy billed the prime-time debate as the “moment of truth” in the race. The duel is to be beamed live for two-and-a-half hours from 9 p.m. (1900 GMT) 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 Sarkozy accusing Hollande of being incompetent and a liar, and Hollande branding the incumbent a “failed president” and “a nasty piece of work”.
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.
Sarkozy received a setback on Tuesday when Le Pen – whose 17.9 percent 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 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 percent of voters agreed with the National Front’s positions, the highest level since 1984. Just over half said France had too many immigrants.
Hollande, less encumbered by the need to address the far right, has rejected 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,” 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?”
Sarkozy, being punished for rife unemployment and a brash manner, is the most unpopular president to run for re-election and the first in recent history to lose a first-round vote. He began campaigning weeks after the more plodding Hollande, vowing to boost industrial competitiveness, hold referendums on contentious policies, crack down on tax exiles and make the unemployed retrain as a condition for receiving benefits.
More recently, seeking to court the near one-in-five National Front voters, he has vowed to cut immigration and threatened to pull out of Europe’s border-free Schengen zone unless European Union borders are strengthened. “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, told BFM TV. Recent polls show Hollande with a slightly tighter but still comfortable lead. A BVA survey on Wednesday put the gap 1 point narrower at 7 points, with the rivals at 53.5 and 46.5 percent.
Sarkozy, a formidable political brawler, is convinced he can swing things in his favour by portraying Hollande as lacking experience and economic credibility. He has already said that Hollande’s tax-and-spend plans would sow economic catastrophe. “Sarkozy is very combative, very pugnacious. He can be quite hard with his interlocutors and Hollande has to avoid being browbeaten,” said Christopher Bickerton, an associate professor of international relations at the Sciences Po University.
20 TV cameras will scrutinise the two rivals from every angle as they sit 2.5 metres (8 feet) apart across a table. The two sides have agreed on logistical details, down to the temperature of the TV studio – between 19 and 20 degrees Celsius (66 to 68 Fahrenheit) and chairs adjustable for height.
Sarkozy and Hollande both deny having trained with coaches or held dress rehearsals with sparring partners. They have come face to face several times, notably in a 1999 debate on Europe. “I have no coach, just myself,” Hollande said on Tuesday. “It’s not a boxing match or a wrestling match.” The final days of the race have been clouded by mudslinging and sleaze allegations, with Sarkozy filing a lawsuit against a news website that alleged Muammar Gaddafi’s government had sought to fund his 2007 campaign.
At May Day street marches, some Sarkozy opponents made “Pinocchio” faces out of posters of the president by poking their fingers through the centre to make fake long noses. His supporters will be rooting for him on Wednesday, however. “He’s going to bring Hollande to his knees,” Jean-Pierre LeGrand, 60, told Reuters at Sarkozy’s May 1 rally.
The Socialists have sought to capitalise on Sarkozy’s unpopularity and a reputation as a ‘president of the rich’. “It’s a clash of styles: their personalities are very different,” Hollande’s campaign manager Pierre Moscovici said. Substance will also be on the table, with Sarkozy likely to pick on Hollande’s plans to raise taxes on large companies and tax earnings over 1 million euros ($1.32 million) at 75 percent.
The only debate considered to have swung a French election, albeit a much tighter one was in 1974, when Valery Giscard d’Estaing emerged stronger for hitting Francois Mitterrand with the snub: “You do not have the monopoly of the heart.” But most political scientists and pollsters say the debates have only confirmed voters in their established views.