Sarkozy to Duel Hollande in Last-Chance Debate for Incumbent

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
French President Nicolas Sarkozy Sarkozy says a Hollande presidency would risk embroiling France deeper in the region’s financial crisis. Photographer: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg

French President Nicolas Sarkozy gets his last chance to turn the tide against Socialist challenger Francois Hollande tonight in the campaign’s only debate.

Hollande, who leads polls with between 53 percent and 56 percent of support before the May 6 runoff, rejected Sarkozy’s bid to hold three debates, agreeing to the standard in French elections. Sarkozy said Europe’s financial crisis compelled the candidates to contrast their stands on debt and competitiveness.

“Sarkozy arrives in the second round with a double handicap: one is symbolic in that he didn’t finish first in the opening round and the second is arithmetic, that he must pick up even more additional votes in the second round than he did in 2007,” said Guenaelle Gault, head of the opinion department at pollster TNS-Sofres. “The debate can change things, and he must think it’s crucial because he asked for three.”

With French jobless claims at a 12-year high, Hollande has called for more spending and higher taxes to spur growth. Sarkozy says a Hollande presidency would risk embroiling France deeper in the region’s financial crisis.

Hollande won 28.6 percent and Sarkozy 27.2 percent of the vote in the first round, putting them in the run-off. The anti-immigrant, anti-Europe National Front’s Marine Le Pen came in third with a record 17.9 percent of the vote.

Sarkozy might get about 54 percent of her first-round voters and Hollande 14 percent, while the remaining 32 percent have yet to decide or will abstain, according to an Ipsos poll published April 30.

Numbers Game

By contrast, Hollande can count on 80 percent of the supporters of communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon, who took 11.1 percent in the first round.

“Sarkozy is convinced there is a right-wing majority in the country, but there is such personal dislike of him among working-class and lower-middle-class voters that he can’t count on their votes,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at Paris-based Institute of Political Studies. “And as he courts the right, he scares the center.”

Of the self-described centrist Francois Bayrou’s 9.1 percent in the first round, 40 percent plan to vote for Sarkozy, 34 percent for Hollande and 26 percent remain undecided, according to the Ipsos poll.

“The left is making a bloc behind Hollande while Sarkozy must find support beyond what voters say they are prepared to do,” Gault said.

Large Viewership

In 2007, Sarkozy won 31.2 percent in the first round on his way to defeating Socialist Segolene Royal in second round by 53.1 to 46.9 percent.

“I will go serenely into this debate to say to the French, here are the choices I propose, and ask Mr. Hollande what do you think of them,” Sarkozy said April 29 in a France 2 television interview. “In an election campaign, there are only key moments,” he said when asked if the debate would be crucial.

A TNS-Sofres poll April 27 said that 72 percent of the French intend to watch the debate, with 34 percent saying they are “certain” to do so.

While only 17 percent said the debate could affect their vote, the proportion rises to 30 percent for Le Pen voters and 38 percent for Bayrou voters, exactly the electorate that Sarkozy and Hollande are targeting.

The poll also said that 30 percent expect Sarkozy to win the debate and 28 percent think it will be Hollande. Sarkozy was rated higher for being command of the issues, with Hollande higher for sincerity and understanding people.

Boxing Match

Sarkozy’s debating style is pugnacious, while Hollande tends to keep his distance.

“I am not ready to enter it like a boxing match,” Hollande said April 29 on France 2. “I am there to show my project for the country and put in question the record of my opponent. I want the French to feel honored by the debate, I don’t want to degrade it with insulting phrases.”

The two candidates are likely to argue over their plans to cut debt and boost growth.

Hollande’s platform includes the hiring of 60,000 school teachers and imposing a 75 percent tax on incomes of 1 million euros ($1.3 million) a year. He also wants to split banks’ retail and investment businesses, renegotiate the European Union’s fiscal accord to add growth measures and withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

Decisive Debates

Sarkozy wants to create levies for tax exiles and large French companies, introduce a “Buy European Act,” revise the Schenghen accord to cap illegal immigration and reduce the number of legal immigrants by half. He will also require long-term unemployed to seek job training, threatening to cut their benefits if they refuse jobs in their new field.

Both plan to balance the government budget, Sarkozy by 2016 and Hollande by 2017.

The debate between second-round candidates has been decisive in the past.

France’s first presidential debate was in 1974, when Valery Giscard d’Estaing told Socialist Francois Mitterrand that “you don’t have a monopoly of the heart,” a zinger that was credited with his eventual victory.

Mitterrand was better prepared in their rematch seven years later and won both the debate and election. There has been one debate in every presidential campaign since then, except in 2002 when Jacques Chirac refused to meet Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, who unexpectedly made it to the second round.

Five years ago to the day, 20.5 million French watched Sarkozy debate Socialist Segolene Royal, Mediametrie said.

Royal lost her cool over what she saw as Sarkozy’s distortion of her work as education minister.

“One must be calm to be president,” Sarkozy told her. Every post-debate poll voted him the winner.

“I didn’t want three debates for me, but for the French people,” Sarkozy said April 29.

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