/ 2 May 2007

Sarkozy, Royal face off in election debate

Right-wing former interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Ségolène Royal meet face to face on Wednesday for a television debate that could decide Sunday’s French presidential election.

The two-hour encounter will be screened simultaneously by France’s two biggest television channels from 9pm local time, and is expected to be watched by nearly half the country’s 44,5-million voters.

Much of the months-long election campaign has been shaped by the contrasting personalities of the two candidates but voters have had few opportunities for a direct comparison.

”I think it will be decisive,” said former president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, author of the memorable put-down, ”You don’t have a monopoly of the heart”, in the 1974 presidential election debate with rival Francois Mitterrand.

”I think I was elected because of this debate,” he told RTL radio on Wednesday.

Other commentators doubt whether the debate will alter the overall pattern of the past few months, with as many as 88% of voters saying they are already sure of their choice and Sarkozy’s poll lead undented since the start of the year.

And Sarkozy himself downplayed the importance of the encounter. ”Every moment is decisive, but I’m not one of those people who dramatise the significance of the debate to that point,” he told France Inter radio.

But the 20-million viewers, the kind of audience usually only seen in World Cup soccer finals, will be anticipating a keenly fought contest and watching for the kind of one-liner or gaffe that can be remembered for years afterwards.

Last chance?

Details of the debate, to be moderated by two of France’s most prominent journalists, have been worked out in minute detail after intensive consultation with the campaign teams.

For both candidates, it will be a chance to win over voters who have followed the election with exceptional interest and who turned out in record numbers in the first round on April 22. But for Royal it could be the last chance.

Sarkozy is one of the most forceful speakers in French politics and polls show more people think he has the stature of a president — but he will have to ensure he is not provoked into appearing too aggressive.

”Television debate: Royal stakes everything against Sarkozy,” business daily Les Echos headlined its front page.

Admired by supporters for his tough stance on crime and illegal immigration and his defence of a ”silent majority” of hardworking French, Sarkozy is hated and feared by many on the left who call him a dangerous authoritarian.

Royal, aiming to be France’s first woman president with a combination of left-wing economic policies and traditional social values, is seen as more sympathetic to everyday concerns but is often derided as a lightweight.

The latest opinion poll on Wednesday confirmed Sarkozy’s lead over Royal, giving him 52% support against 48% for Royal.

Jerome Sainte-Marie, of pollsters BVA who carried out the survey, said neither had yet established a clear lead as the candidate best representing change or the candidate best able to rally France. — Reuters