French debate captivates 18 million, boosts Hollande

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

Patrick Kovarik/AP
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.

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.

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.

“If there is one point in which the lines have moved, it is the image of Francois Hollande as a leader,” opined the highest circulation newspaper, West France. “Hollande needed to show he was capable of presidential stature and on that field he scored points,” offered Nord Éclair, located in Lille. 

Punches fly

Fighting for his political life, Sarkozy threw the first punch. He called Hollande’s opening appeal for placing “justice” at the heart of a France that needs to be less divided and more united as simply “traditional… old-fashioned language,” inauthentic, and “a beautiful dream… not reality” at a time when France is “not just in one crisis but in a series of crises.”

Yet when Sarkozy complained that Hollande’s aides misrepresented his record, sullied his image, and cast him as a divisive social figure for currying voters on the far right, Hollande interrupted to say, “Mr. Sarkozy, it is going to be difficult for you to play the victim…. the French will judge you on your record.”

For the next 170 straight minutes the two men locked horns, talked past each other, made personal attacks, and occasionally so exasperated the two moderators that at some points all four were speaking at the same time.

Sarkozy contrasted his economic approach with Hollande's, portraying his own as one of structural reform rather than public spending.

“The key word is competitiveness,” he said, taking a page from the German industrial and manufacturing playbook that he has been championing as a partner to German Chancellor Angela Merkel throughout the eurozone crisis. He blamed the Socialist party and former president Francois Mitterrand, Hollande’s mentor, for the 35-hour work week that he says contributes to France's economic woes and said, "For me, the example to follow is rather the example of Germany than that of Greece or that of Spain."

Does 'Mr. Normal' belong in the presidency?

While Sarkozy turned his body into an instrument, leaning forward and often cocking his head like he was listening to a naïve graduate student when Hollande spoke, Hollande sat erect and looked steadily at Sarkozy, something many French politicians have shrunk at attempting.

Holland noted that in 2007, Sarkozy promised to lower the unemployment rate to five percent, but today it is 10 percent. That was the start of a lengthy tiff about the interpretation of statistics that came to characterize the entire debate. Sarkozy clearly hope to overmatch Hollande with his grasp of the intricacies. Both men cited a dizzying array of authorities for their different figures on trade, jobs, training, and immigration in a debate that was as technical as it was often personal.

Hollande became the Socialist candidate following the sex-scandal-prompted flameout of former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and has characterized himself as “Mr. Normal” in contrast to Sarkozy’s flamboyance.

Toward the end he said, “Nothing is normal when you are president because conditions are exceptional. … But the president needs to be close to the people.”

Sarkozy shot back, “Your normalcy is not up to the stakes [of the job.]” 

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