Candidates spar vigorously as French vote nears
PARIS: He accused her of losing her cool. She accused him of lacking compassion.
Nicolas Sarkozy on the right and Ségolène Royal on the left went after each other Wednesday evening in the kind of vivid confrontation that has disappeared from the American scene, where the candidates avoid one another as much as possible.
The two-and-a-half-hour televised debate could determine the outcome of the French presidential election on Sunday.
At times, the candidates seemed like they were more in a local race than vying for the presidency of a nuclear power with the sixth-largest economy. Iraq and France's relationship with the United States, for example, never came up. Domestic issues, like the wisdom of the 35-hour workweek, public spending for the police and hospitals, and fighting crime took up more time than how to shape the identity of France.
Sarkozy, 52, the son of a Hungarian immigrant with minor aristocratic roots, and Royal, 53, the daughter of a career army officer, faced different challenges. Sarkozy had to avoid looking like a sexist bully; Royal had to prove herself presidential.
Sarkozy, the former interior and finance minister, had to fight off the demon that has tormented him: his image as an authoritarian figure with a volatile temper. For Royal, the debate was her last chance to turn around polls that consistently put Sarkozy in the lead.
The two candidates are competing for the nearly seven million voters who chose the centrist third-place candidate, François Bayrou, in the first round. Bayrou has refused to endorse either candidate.
Another variable is whether the nearly four million voters who voted for the far-right candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the first round will heed his call to "abstain en masse," a move that could pull votes away from Sarkozy.
Royal, aware that this was her chance to prove that she is of greater substance than her critics paint her, was on the offensive from the start, repeatedly interrupting Sarkozy with the line, "Let me finish."
Sarkozy kept his temper in check, speaking more slowly and in a more modulated voice than usual.
Toward the end of the debate, Royal became agitated during a discussion of educating disabled children. She argued that the right had undone the good work that the left had been trying to do, and cast Sarkozy's position as "the height of political immorality."
She accused him of playing the compassion card even though his government had not delivered needed services, indignantly telling him he had described the plight of handicapped children "with a tear in your eye."
Sarkozy grabbed the opportunity to bore in on his point that she could not lead France in such a temperamental fashion.
"Calm down," he told her.
"No, I will not calm down," she replied.
"Do not point at me with this finger, with this——" he said.
"No. Yes," she said.
"With this index finger pointed, because frankly——"
"No, I will not calm down," she said. "No, I will not calm down. I will not calm down."
"To be president of the republic, you have to be calm," he said.
She responded: "Not when there are injustices. There are angers that are perfectly healthy because they correspond to people's suffering. There are angers I will have——"
He said, "Madame Royal, would you allow me to say one word?"
She finished her sentence: "Even when I am president of the republic."
His voice took on a patronizing tone. "I don't know why the usually calm Madame Royal has lost her nerve," he said.
Sarkozy repeatedly tried to paint Royal as uninformed. She tried to paint him as overbearing. There was equal-time interruption.
Making this race even more compelling, political analysts were divided on who had "won" the debate, Ségo or Sarko, as they call them here.
Sarkozy got points for not losing his temper. But Royal's losing her temper caused different reactions. Some found it exhilarating, a sign that the left would not be complacent. Others found it unnerving. No one found it boring.
"Sarkozy has lost," said Dominique Reynié, a professor of political science at Institut d'Études Politiques in Paris. "He didn't dominate the debate even though he's been the super-favorite since the beginning."
Nicole Bacharan, a political analyst at the same institute, said: "For me the winner is Sarkozy, it's clear. Ségolène was the challenger. She had more to prove. She was strong but Sarkozy invoked precise facts, in a more pragmatic and less ideological manner."
Royal repeatedly interrupted Sarkozy to get him to stop interrupting her, saying, "Let me finish," and things like, "Please stop interrupting me because I know your strategy really well."
But Sarkozy was also stopped short in mid-sentence over and over.
"Will you let me finish?" he asked at one point.
"No," Royal said.
"Ah," Sarkozy replied.
By midway, Royal's perpetual smile disappeared from her face. Their tone was reminiscent of a couple bickering at the breakfast table, with the husband barely restraining his sense of superiority and the wife attacking him for not listening to her.
"You understand me perfectly but you pretend you don't understand," Royal told her rival.
Even though she has a reputation of being condescending in meetings, she accused him of being condescending. Even though he has the reputation of losing his temper, she was the one who lost her temper during the debate.
During an argument about nuclear power, for example, Royal played schoolteacher, asking Sarkozy, "Do you know how much of electricity consumption in France comes from nuclear power?"
When Sarkozy said it was 50 percent, Royal corrected him, saying it was 17 percent. To that, Sarkozy replied, "No, Madame, that is not correct."
She lectured him "Go do your homework."
He argued back, "I may not be very informed about the issue, but I'm consistent."
Indeed, both were wrong: the answer is close to 80 percent.
Even though her attempt to appeal directly to women has not resonated, Royal pressed many women's issues throughout the debate.
She raised the case of a police officer who was raped recently in a Paris suburb because, Royal said, the money had been cut for her to have a partner.
She proposed retirement benefits for stay-at-home mothers. She described "choosing to raise one's children as, after all, the most beautiful profession."
Royal, who has often been accused of making factual errors, struggled to prove she was right.
"Let's go to the bitter end on every issue," she said. She also said, "I know all the topics well."
While they were speaking about the economy, she summed up her philosophy of leadership, saying, with a little smile, "I will be the president of what works."
Sarkozy replied, caustically, "People don't vote for us to go complicate what works, but on the contrary, to fix what doesn't."
Still, Sarkozy was gracious at the end, expressing his respect for Royal's "talent and competence." But she kept her distance, saying, "I abstain from personal judgments."