Royal and Sarkozy Go to the Mat

What did the Frenchman on the street think of the debate between the presidential hopefuls? Both sides think their candidate was the winner

From trenchant to gallant, venomous to polite, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal slogged through a two-hour TV duel on Wednesday. So who won?

A handful of guests have joined a Parisian advertising executive in his apartment to watch the TV debate between presidential candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal -- lawyers, a salesman, a diplomat. It is certainly not a demographically representative cross section, the group is politically left-leaning, reflective of the area between the St. Lazare train station and the nightclub district Montmartre. Expectations are running high: "Royal has to convince the audience with substance," the group agrees, "Sarkozy with his personality."

With that, the bar has been raised pretty high. Sarkozy, the candidate of the conservative UMP party, is considered a carping and sometimes even unrestrained or aggressive politician. Socialist candidate Royal, for her part, has repeatedly had to endure accusations of incompetence -- particularly in foreign policy -- in recent months.

At 9:00 p.m., the gong sounds for round one. Sarkozy begins with polite chit-chat -- and speaks as an activist: "I want to be a president of responsibility," he says, and vows to secure greater power for the parliament. Madame Royal opts for confrontation from the get go. She looks back at the Chirac era and lists its shortcomings: crime, unemployment, price increases and a giant national debt.

"Am I responsible for the government? Yes," says Sarkozy, and begins to speak about the balance of his achievements as interior minister -- giving himself good marks in comparison with the last time the Socialists were in office in the 1980s and early 90s. When it comes to debt, he appeals to "common sense," arguing that spending has to be cut and the number of public servants reduced.

Madame Royal replies in the same way that she will for the entire two hours to come -- with an example from real life. Her strength lies in the way she argues. She talks about a policewoman raped in a Parisian suburb; talks about job cuts for nurses and teachers. "I won't cut jobs in the public sector," the Socialist candidate says -- only to face the retort that, in parliament, the Socialists voted against raising the budget for security.

A ROYAL ADVANTAGEThen Sarkozy's arguments become technical and detailed. He recites statistics on the recidivism of convicted criminals and says the jobs of customs officers should be cut, as they have become superfluous. And then he plays his first trump card, stating that, in his view, the 35 hour week -- a key component of Socialist reforms -- is to blame for the country's general misery. Royal parries the blow: "Why didn't you push through the reform on criminal recidivism? You were the interior minister for five years." That was the first round. Advantage: Royal.

With the presidential elections four days away, the political and personal future of both candidates is at stake -- even if Sarkozy, who has been leading in the polls since January, has entered the TV studios of Boulogne-Billancourt as the odds-on favorite.

"If you address all the issues at the same time, the debate will become superficial," he jeers now. Then the debate transforms into the political equivalent of hand-to-hand combat. At issue is the redistribution of positions and functions within the public sector. Sarkozy talks about budget issues while Royal demands the redistribution of national and regional responsibilities. And then she brings up her favorite topic: "work for youth" -- 500,000 jobs for those entering the job market, and "it works," Royal avers triumphantly, citing experiences in her region.

SARKOZY PARRIESNothing is left to chance during this debate -- neither the futurist decor of the studio, nor the angles of the 12 hidden cameras or the placement of the two presenters, Arlette Chabot from the public TV channel "France 2" and Patrick Poivre d'Avor from the private channel "TF1." Boy, girl, boy, girl. Two meters of solid wood separate the two candidates.

The distance between the two different political projects and the two varied visions of France's future is much greater.

Now it's 9:44 p.m. and the issue of full employment is up for discussion. No one in the world divides employment up like a cake, Sarkozy says. And then he suggests a "different strategy," like "your friend Tony Blair" -- and gears up for his favorite topic: the linking of job creation to welfare. "If you were opposed to the 35 hour week, why didn't you get rid of that reform?" asks Royal. She follows up by demanding increased flexibility of working hours, adjusted to each sector and company. "I note that you do not question this social achievement," she says.

The candidates' sights are set on France's swing voters. Judging by the first round of elections, Sarkozy can count on supporters from the far-right National Front party, while Royal as the candidate of the left, the Greens and the globalization critics. Both candidates are thus primarily concerned with wooing the roughly 20 percent of undecided voters in the political center. All the while, of course, striving to present themselves as presidential material.

Then Royal, dressed in a blue suit and a white blouse, proposes a tax on stock market profits. Sarkozy wants to know more: "How high is this tax supposed to be? Don't you have a figure?" Royal gives him a venomous look and defends herself by citing the still-unknown magnitude of future economic growth. "Don't interrupt me," she says when Sarkozy repeats his question. The first beads of sweat are appearing along the collar of his blue single-breasted suit. But she never answers the former economic minister's query. Sarkozy wins this round.

A BLOCKBUSTER TV DUELThings are getting exciting in this TV spectacle with a "number of viewers comparable to the World Cup final," as the daily Parisien Liberé describes it. Not even the Champions League game on at the same time -- AC Milan's drubbing of Manchester United -- can tempt viewers to switch channels. The sports event lags well behind the political Armageddon in primetime popularity.

The fifth TV duel in the history of the Fifth Republic is a match for the great confrontations of the past, both in terms of rhetoric and issues. Like the great intellectual clashes between conservative Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Socialist Francois Mitterrand -- currently being re-enacted on the stage of a Paris theater. In one famous 1974 debate, Giscard jabbed Mitterrand by saying: "You do not have a monopoly on the heart, M. Mitterrand. I am equally concerned about the social problems of France." Mitterrand's 1981 riposte remains equally unforgotten. Having been accused by Giscard's of being politically "passé," Mitterrand retorted by blasting Giscard as being politically "passive."

And the 1988 duel between Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac remains unrivalled: The Socialist president spent the debate referring to Chirac condescendingly as "Monsieur Prime Minister." When Chirac replied that "this evening we are both equal candidates," Mitterrand replied politely: "You're entirely right, Monsieur Prime Minister."

But on this night, there is no lack of vitriol either.

"MADAME REACHES FOR THE BOXING GLOVES"The debate becomes tough when it comes to the issue of education, which Royal wants to make the "center piece" of her presidency. Sarkozy even speaks of Madame "reaching for the boxing gloves." Sarkozy gets things started by referring to support for disabled children -- unwittingly exposing himself to an uppercut from Royal: "No, I'm horrified by what I hear. As educational minister, I pushed through the addition of 7,000 childcare workers for the disabled. And now you are demanding, with a tear in your eye, that the parents should take to the courts to be granted what is theirs by right? No, that's not acceptable." The upset Royal is at an advantage, while Sarkozy -- genuinely unsettled -- takes on the role of the victim. It is one he does not play convincingly.

"Calm down," the UMP man says. "No, sometimes anger is justified," Royal says. "I'm not angry," she adds thunderously, "I'm outraged."

Sarkozy tries the sarcastic approach, saying of her possible presidency that it looks to become "a merry affair."

The debate has already carried on for five minutes more than the scheduled two hours when Royal is asked about immigration. She talks about a plan for Africa, one that ensures immigration is stopped at the root. Sarkozy, who has campaigned on tighter controls on immigration, repeats his demands. "Don't play with people's misery," Royal spits at him.

MINUTES FOR REFORMSNow the TV hosts are getting nervous. Time is running out and only minutes remain to work out the Fifth Republic's reforms. No wonder things start getting rough. Sarkozy recites his reform project; Royal appeals to the political center and demands a new, "Sixth Republic" with clear rights for the parliament, for efficiency, for more co-determination from the opposition: "The state must no longer belong to just one party."

At this point, Sarkozy elects to forego three minutes of speaking time.

"REAL MAN" OR MACHO?It's 11:32 p.m. and the referees Chabot and Poivre d'Avor ask the adversaries to pass judgement on one another: Sarkozy, a perfect gentleman, takes the chance to praise the female candidate as a "woman with qualities." Royal remains cool: "I won't permit myself a personal judgement, but I hope the French will judge on the basis of the issues."

Then, finally, the last round begins. "I'm committed to action; I want to take the initiative. France has given me everything; I want to give everything back. I will keep every promise I have made. I will not disappoint the French," Sarkozy concludes in a hammering tone.

Royal once again campaigns as the candidate who wants to become France's first-ever female president. "It's a choice that requires courage," she says. "Women have been heads of government elsewhere -- think of Angela Merkel." She advertises herself as a "mother of four children" who wants to reconcile the family, work and the nation: "I won't pit the French against each other. I want to combine the country's energies." Her France is that of a harmonious future.

Midnight is approaching, and the champagne has been opened in the Paris advertising agent's apartment near Place Clichy. "Not bad," the guests say, commenting on the standard of the more than two-hour-long debate. Royal ranks above Sarkozy here. She was "assertive and likeable," the only woman present says. "Royal has put up a good fight during the great 'oral examination.'"

But in the bars on and around Rue Pigalle, opinions diverge. Sarkozy's fans give their candidate the thumbs-up sign, praising him for "telling it like it is." The prostitutes believe the Socialist candidate has taken the lead -- which is hardly surprising. "Ségo has given that UMP guy a beating," they say.

AN UNCERTAIN RESULTThere's no photo finish, no technical knockout -- just a tie following a highly professional fight. Or was all the excitement for nothing? Was it just a debate for television -- a media spectacle of no consequence?

"The debates between the two candidates have never decided the outcome of the presidential elections," writes French daily Le Figaro, citing the expert opinion of political scientists, since TV duels have never changed the minds of more than 300,000 voters. But the number of undecided voters has risen constantly from one election to the next, the conservative paper admits.

The final gong will sound on Sunday.

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