/ 3 May 2007

Sarkozy keeps advantage after TV debate

French conservative Nicolas Sarkozy is clear favourite to win Sunday’s presidential election after he outshone his Socialist rival Ségolène Royal in a televised debate, an opinion poll showed on Thursday.

An Opinionway poll for the daily Le Figaro indicated 53 p% of viewers judged Sarkozy more convincing in Wednesday’s debate against 31% for Royal.

In a sometimes fiery exchange, Royal was surprisingly pugnacious in taking on a generally restrained Sarkozy, but neither candidate delivered any of the kind of lethal one-liners or decisive gaffes likely to go down in political history.

”Each camp will celebrate its champion and deride the adversary,” said the daily, Le Parisien.

The influential daily, Le Monde, said the quality of the debate was disappointing and gave little sense of the way forward for France.

But it gave a cautious endorsement of Royal, saying victory would give her the authority to renew the left in France. ”It’s a gamble. For the country, it’s worth trying,” Le Monde editor Jean-Marie Colombani wrote.

Sarkozy, who has led in more than 100 opinion polls since the start of the year, said he did not believe the debate would change the pattern of the campaign.

”I don’t think everything is decided by a debate, however much of a media event it may be,” he told RTL radio.

An opinion poll published late on Wednesday put Sarkozy’s support at 53,5% against 46,5% for Royal, with 86% saying they will not change their minds before the May 6 vote.

But Royal denied the race was as good as over. ”Opinion polls don’t decide elections,” she told France Inter radio.

Peak audience

Centrist Francois Bayrou, who took third place in the first round of the election and whose seven million voters could play a key role, appeared to favour Royal.

”I will not vote for Sarkozy,” Le Monde quoted him saying.

The first and only debate in the election race was watched by a peak audience of 23,1-million viewers, more than half of France’s 44,5-million voters.

Royal, often seen as a stilted speaker, attacked Sarkozy from the start, while the often abrasive former interior minister was at pains to restrain his gladiatorial instincts, which delight his supporters but often alienate neutrals.

Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, one of the two journalists who moderated the debate, said Sarkozy was visibly holding back and left ”not annoyed, a bit disappointed perhaps”.

The Opinionway survey found Royal had done better on the environment and social issues, but on most others, ranging from the economy to jobs, security and foreign policy, Sarkozy was judged better by a clear majority.

Polls show that more people consider Sarkozy has the stature to be president, while Royal, seen as nicer and more caring, has faced repeated questions in the media over her competence.

Her combative performance in the debate may have removed some doubts about her ability to take on France’s highest office but Sarkozy’s lead means she still has a mountain to climb.

”To get back to his level, Royal would have had to achieve the impossible,” conservative daily Le Figaro said. ”But we’re a long way from that.” — Reuters