Alexa

Bitter rivals for France's presidency face off in heated television debate

Bitter rivals for France's presidency face off in heated television debate

For nigh on two hours, the man who this weekend stands a good chance of becoming France's new president prodded his female challenger _ a little sarcasm here, a comment about her partner there, all wrapped in a veneer of chivalry and always addressing her as "Madame."
Finally, in a highly anticipated televised duel on Wednesday night that did not disappoint for high drama, Segolene Royal's cool snapped. The first woman in a position to seriously contest for the presidency of France erupted in anger toward the end of the primetime debate, the first and last between Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy before one of them is elected on Sunday to reinvigorate a nation in the economic doldrums, unsure how to defend its place in the world.
On policy, the debate lasting two hours and 40 minutes _ with clocks that ensured that they got a roughly equal say _ produced no major surprises. They disagreed on how to get France's sluggish economy working again, on whether Turkey should get a place in the European Union, on how to safeguard French pensions, on whether taxes should be cut, and even whether China should face the threat of a possible Olympic Games boycott because of its support for the Sudanese government, accused of atrocities in Darfur.
But it was a surprise and potentially damaging for Royal that she, not Sarkozy, proved quick to anger. During their long and sometimes bitter election campaign that has energized voters hungry for new direction, Royal, a Socialist, has sought to portray her conservative opponent as too unstable, too brutal, to lead the nuclear-armed nation.
On Wednesday night, in front of millions of television viewers, Sarkozy turned the tables. She got furious when he started talking about handicapped children, saying he was "playing" with the issue. "I am very angry," said Royal.
"You become unhinged very easily, madame," said Sarkozy. "To be president of the Republic, one must be calm .... I don't know why Mrs. Royal, who's usually calm, has lost her calm."
There's long been little love lost between Royal and Sarkozy, both in their fifties and both first-time candidates, but very different in their characters, political outlooks and recipes for reviving France.
The televised debate was their first since another heated encounter in a studio during legislative elections 14 years ago. The medium and format highlighted the differences between the two, and sparks flew in the high-pressure, high-stakes situation.
Royal, who is behind in polls and needed to score points, came out swinging, criticizing Sarkozy's record as a minister in President Jacques Chirac's government before he became a candidate for the presidency.
Sarkozy, the frontrunner who needed most of all to get through the debate unscathed, was often scrupulously polite and resisted rising to Royal's baiting, even after she repeatedly interrupted him.
"Will you let me finish?" he asked at one point.
"No," said Royal.
"Ah," said Sarkozy.
She wore a dark jacket; he a suit and tie. But their differences were more than one of style. An immediate bone of contention was France's 35-hour work week _ a landmark reform for Socialists, but decried by business leaders as a crippling brake on companies.
Sarkozy wants to get around the 35-hour week by making overtime tax-free, to encourage people to work more. He described the measure, introduced by the Socialists in the 1990s, as a "monumental error," and noted that no other country in Europe has followed France's lead.
Royal defended the 35-hour work week as a form of social progress and asked why, if it was so opposed, the government in which Sarkozy served had not gotten rid of the legislation. Repeatedly, she accused Sarkozy _ who served as Chirac's interior and finance minister _ of having failed to improve France while he was in government.
"What did you do for five years? Because for five years, you had all the power. There's a credibility problem," she said.
He, in turn, suggested that her economic program was unworkable and lacked precision. And he dug at Royal by digging at her partner and the father of their four children, Socialist Party boss Francois Hollande.
"I know that Francois Hollande said he doesn't like the rich, which is a strange thing," said Sarkozy, adding Hollande "must not like himself."
Sarkozy, who built much of his campaign on a pledge to break with the Chirac era, promised in his concluding remarks not to disappoint, betray or lie to the French if they elect him. Royal urged voters to have the "daring" to elect a woman, citing the example of Angela Merkel in power in neighboring Germany.
"I know that for some ... it is not easy to tell oneself that a woman can shoulder the highest responsibilities," she said. "Others do it elsewhere in the world."
The live duel was expected to draw 20 million viewers or more, and voters have turned out in huge numbers to pick a new president after 12 lackluster years under Chirac.
Sarkozy and Royal were the last two candidates standing after the April 22 first round in which Sarkozy won 31.2 percent and Royal had 25.9 percent, with 10 rival candidates across the political spectrum knocked out of the race.
Royal's underdog bid had gathered some momentum recently.
She outdid Sarkozy on Tuesday with a larger rally in Paris than one he had over the weekend. Also Tuesday, far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who placed fourth with nearly 4 million votes, urged his supporters to abstain Sunday. Polls show his voters were more likely to back Sarkozy than Royal, and it could cut into Sarkozy's support if they stay home en masse.
The last head-to-head televised presidential debate, pitting Chirac against Socialist Lionel Jospin in 1995, drew 17 million viewers. Chirac won the first of his two terms that year. In 2002, he refused to debate Le Pen, who stunned much of France by ousting Jospin and other contenders in the first round.
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Associated Press Writer Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.


Updated : 2020-12-06 10:29 GMT+08:00