Has Segolene Royal regained her momentum?
The Socialist who would be France's first woman president emerged smiling from a friendly but feisty debate with a center-right former rival whose supporters could make or break her chances of beating Nicolas Sarkozy in next Sunday's election finale.
Polls show Sarkozy, a pro-American conservative, with a narrow but durable lead over Royal in the race to run a country thirsty for change and improved economic fortunes after 12 years under President Jacques Chirac.
Royal didn't go into Saturday's TV debate with center-right former candidate Francois Bayrou expecting an endorsement, and he didn't offer one. But the 6.8 million voters who backed him for the April 22 primary _ placing him third _ are high in her mind.
Some far-left supporters of Royal criticized her for reaching across the political divide and meeting with Bayrou, who served in a conservative Cabinet in the early 1990s, along with Sarkozy. Several lawmakers from Bayrou's party have endorsed Sarkozy.
As the heated campaign enters its final week, one political analyst said Royal needed to take a chance on the debate with Bayrou as a way to gain new momentum _ and she may have succeeded.
"In my opinion, people are going to be talking about this event for the next four or five days," said Dominique Reynie, of the elite Institute of Political Sciences in Paris.
It was too early to tell Saturday whether the meeting might translate into a boost for Royal in the polls.
"Despite it all, she has the upper hand at the moment," said Reynie, who two weeks ago said Royal appeared to be losing. "My view today is she's the one who's rather transcending herself, and he (Sarkozy) is looking for the best way to express his ideas."
Sarkozy, on a campaign trail visit in northern France on Saturday, made only a passing reference to the Bayrou-Royal meeting, denouncing their "insults about me." He did not elaborate.
"They have their little meeting to try to deprive the French people of their second round" vote on May 6, Sarkozy told reporters. He said he was "not interested" in their debate.
The discussion also offered Royal a warm-up before what was shaping up to become possibly her last gasp in the race: Wednesday's prime-time debate with Sarkozy.
By appearing on the same stage with Royal, Bayrou managed to indirectly support her while keeping his independence. That freedom is crucial to his party's success in parliamentary elections in June _ and as he eyes the next presidential elections in 2012.
He highlighted some of their differences. Royal would hike government spending to boost employment and heal social ills _ a policy Bayrou says would stifle much-needed growth and bury France further in debt.
"You return too often, in my view, to the idea that the state can do things instead of society," he said. "That's finished."
But Royal countered that her policies were not "statist," but modernizing, and refused to relent when Bayrou sought to draw a line between them on economic matters.
"No, no, no _ we don't disagree," she retorted. Overall, Bayrou remained congenial and considerate to a confident and smiling Royal _ and clearly hostile to Sarkozy.
They agreed that reaching across party lines won't solve problems like a stagnant economy, unrest in immigrant-heavy housing projects and France's fading voice in global affairs.
The debate "underlines the modernization of politics and the need to get past the confrontations of one bloc against the other," Royal said.
Royal _ who just weeks ago sharply dismissed calls for an alliance with Bayrou and whose camp viewed Bayrou as a bigger threat than Sarkozy _ repeatedly stressed Saturday the similarities between her vision for France and Bayrou's.
Bayrou opposes expanding France's 35-hour workweek, which he says failed in its bid to create jobs, and has stifled innovation. Royal has waffled on the 35-hour week, a flagship Socialist policy introduced in 1999, criticizing it then saying she would expand it.
Royal is working to make the runoff a referendum on the character of Sarkozy, a pugnacious and blunt former interior minister whose platform of economic reforms and tough measures on crime and immigration _ and often brutal language and attitude _ scare many in the opposing camp.
Sarkozy beat Royal by more than 5 percent in the first round, and led Royal 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent in an Ipsos poll released Saturday. The poll of 1,255 people was conducted April 25-27 by telephone. No margin of error was given.
Polls last year in the run-up to Royal's nomination in November showed her leading Sarkozy. He has led in every poll since he was named as the candidate for Chirac's party in a big-budget U.S.-style convention in January.
Associated Press Writers Angela Charlton and Nathalie Schuck contributed to this report.
Has Segolene Royal regained her momentum?