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French debate captivates 18 million, boosts Hollande (+video)

In last night's presidential debate, challenger Francois Hollande matched President Nicolas Sarkozy point for point, occasionally putting the famed debater on the defensive.

By Staff writer / May 3, 2012

Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande, left, and current President and conservative candidate for re-election Nicolas Sarkozy , right, pose before a televised debate in Paris, Wednesday, May, 2. Behind Sarkozy is debate host Laurence Ferrari.

Patrick Kovarik/AP

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Paris

Francois Hollande showed France last night that he has the teeth and fire in his belly to stand up to President Nicolas Sarkozy, and that despite his relative inexperience and laidback persona, he can meet the incumbent toe-to-toe on difficult economic and social issues.

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Some French analysts and media described the debate as Mr. Hollande's emergence as a French politician of stature. Until now, few French have seen him embroiled in the rough and tumble of politics. 

In an intense, record-long three-hour slugfest viewed by 18 million French – the first and only debate between the two presidential candidates – Mr. Sarkozy met expectations as the tough and skilled verbal swordsman who has led France since 2007. But the significance of the much-awaited debate ahead of the May 6 vote is that Hollande exceeded expectations in a showdown in which analysts said he only needed to achieve a draw. 

Sarkozy has narrowed the gap between himself and Hollande to four to six percent, from eight to 12 percent two weeks ago. Sarkozy's camp hoped the debate would provide either a chance for Sarkozy to deliver a knockout blow or induce a meltdown by Hollande, and yesterday the president predicted he would "maul" Hollande in front of the nation.

But that did not happen. Hollande often matched him point for point, and occasionally put him on the defensive. 

Sarkozy presented himself Iast night as the leader who averted the economic fate of Greece and Spain and drew France back from the precipice of chaos. He vowed he would make the country competitive again. He also promised to cut immigration from 180,000 to 90,000 a year. 

But Hollande, as challenger, used Sarkozy’s record and perceived hubris against him.

"With you, it's very simple, it is never your fault,” Hollande said, looking straight at Sarkozy. “You always have a scapegoat. Now, you're saying on education, ‘It's not me, it's the regions. On job training, ‘I can't do anything.’ On unemployment, ‘It's not me, it's the crisis that hit us.’ You talked about 5 percent unemployment, it's now 10 percent… It’s not your fault, it's the crisis' fault, never yours."

Hollande promised to “change the direction of Europe” through policies of growth that would supplement the austerity measures that been touted as the remedy for the ongoing eurozone crisis.

Local media portrayed last night as the night that Hollande was finally seen as a possible leader of France.

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