One hot French presidential debate: genial tortoise vs. mud-slinging hare

Three-quarters of France is expected to tune in tonight to the sole debate between François Holland and President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is in danger of becoming the first incumbent to lose since 1981.

Michel Euler/AP
France's President and candidate for re-election in 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy, acknowledges applauses as he arrives for a campaign rally at Tocadero square in Paris, Tuesday, May 1.
Jacky Naegelen/Reuters Jacky Naegelen/Reuters Jacky Naegelen/Reuters
Francois Hollande, Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Nevers, Tuesday, May 1.

It’s the one and only debate night in France, the ultimate round of pugilism for the presidency: François Hollande vs. Nicolas Sarkozy

The genial French tortoise and the dashing French hare will battle it out before the nation at 9 p.m. in a traditional final debate. Mr. Hollande, the plodding tortoise, has been winning the presidential campaign against incumbent dynamo Mr. Sarkozy for weeks. 

If Hollande wins, he will be the first Socialist president in 17 years and it will be the first time an incumbent has not been elected to a second term since 1981. 

Three-quarters of the nation is expected to tune in to the debate, whose format has been intensely and minutely negotiated. Cameras are forbidden to show Sarkozy’s sharp profile, or focus on Hollande’s thinning hairline. Room temperature will be 66 degrees. Two moderators will preside.

It’s gloves-off “crunch time” in Paris, as Sarkozy has said as he continues to drive one of the most aggressive, mud-splattering campaigns ever seen here in order to dislodge and intimidate the affable Hollande, who has run as the unflappable “Mr. Normal” against flamboyant Sarkozy. 

"When you're in a war, you don't want a captain who's just like you, who will freak out in the trenches,” Sarkozy aides told Le Parisian today, on the heels of a big rally yesterday in Paris in which Sarkozy spoke, framed by the Eiffel Tower. “You want to believe he's a superman."

Hollande, playing on Sarkozy’s deeply unpopular personality here, has so far refused to wade into the fray. "It's not a boxing match. I don't have this type of behavior," Hollande said yesterday. 

Sarkozy is glacially regaining ground in the polls and no one can count out the wily, hard-working president, but he remains 7 to 10 points behind Hollande. The most talked-about and the most-hated (and sometimes loved) French leader in modern times must score an unprecedented knockout punch, or hope that Hollande, who has never held a high government post, suffers a Rick Perry-style meltdown under the bright lights tonight.

And even that might not be enough.

The French may have already decided, after five years of Sarkozy as an omnipresent figure in French media and politics, that they will vote for the other guy. 

The French left is set to rally en masse behind Hollande, who benefits from a 10 percent unemployment rate in France and a European economic crisis that has not abated under an austerity regimen backed by the French-German duo of Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel, dubbed “Merkozy.” 

Yesterday, millions of May Day marchers hit the streets of Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, and elsewhere in Europe to rally against the budget slashing that has put Spain on the ropes and could reach France.

Hollande, a moderate compromiser, chose to stay away from the rallies, partly because Sarkozy has been trying to paint him as a radical leftist who “marches with the red flags.”

Yet the French right, Sarkozy’s base, is not entirely rallying behind him.

The far right, with its anti-immigrant, anti-Islam social issues platform, provided a surprise surge in Round 1 of elections for National Front leader Marine Le Pen. But yesterday, in a blast of patriotic tricolor pyrotechnics, Ms. Le Pen, standing in front of a golden image of Joan of Arc at the Paris Opera House, told supporters she would abstain from the final vote by casting a blank ballot. “Neither Hollande nor Sarkozy will save you,” she said.

Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, representing the more traditional upper-crust side of the French right, recently called Sarkozy’s appeal to base instincts in the campaign “putrid.”

In the first round of voting on April 22, Hollande won 28.6 percent of the vote and Sarkozy 27.2 percent, marking the first time an incumbent has not taken the lion’s share of round one.  Le Pen came in third with 17.9 percent, the largest tally ever recorded for a far-right party, eclipsing the total won by Jean Marie Le Pen, her father, in 2002.

Since April 22, Sarkozy has been a political contortionist, trying to appeal to the anger and fear of the far right while trying not to scare off the French mainstream or center. 

He has repeatedly described foreigners and immigrants as one of France’s biggest problems. In rallies last weekend, he said, "To those French who stay home, don't complain when François Hollande is elected and naturalizes all illegal immigrants and lets foreigners vote."

In France's suburban ghettos, a struggle to be heard amid election noise

French analysts who know Hollande say that he will not necessarily prove to be a punchless debater. He is known to have a sharp wit and tongue and may not be as easily flustered as Ségolène Royale, the Socialist who faced off against Sarkozy on TV in 2007, and who happens to be Hollande’s former partner and mother of his four children.

Holland is very intelligent and quick thinking,” says Hubert Vedrine, the French foreign minister from 1997 to 2002. “He’s a compromiser who doesn’t like conflict but who is not weak, and he’s known for his humor and jokes.” 

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