Broadcast on seven radio and TV channels, including RFI in French, the debate was watched by 17.79 per cent people, fewer than the 20.4 million in 2007 who watched Sarkozy debate with the Socialists’ standard bearer at the time, Ségolène Royal.
Despite Hollande’s six or seven per cent in the polls, Sarkozy was still clinging to hope Thursday, insisting that “an election has never been so undecided” and that the debate could swing masses of undecided voters his way.
Most of the French press felt that neither candidate came out a clear winner.
Both candidates had reportedly prepared carefully for the confrontation. Sarkozy took the day off from running the nation, while Hollande is believed to have practiced face to face with his campaign manager, Manuel Valls, described by one anonymous Socialist cynic as the ideal stand-in for the incumbent, being “short, aggressive and pretty right-wing”.
Sarkozy, a trained lawyer and skilled debater, started well, especially during several long sections on aspects of the economy, but seemed to tire by the end.
Hollande was restrained, even a bit ill at ease, at the beginning but got down to some effective heckling in the second half, reducing Sarkozy to stuttering on two subjects where the incumbent must have felt he was on the strongest ground.
When Sarkozy claimed that Hollande’s pledge to give votes to non-EU foreigners in council elections would lead to halal meat in school canteens and separate hours for women in swimming pools, the Socialist asked the president why he identified immigration with Islam.
And, when Sarkozy pointed out that the libidinous Dominique Strauss-Kahn was at one time favourite to be sitting where Hollande was sitting, Hollande bounced back with demand to know whether the president was acquainted with the details of all his collaborators’ private lives - a response that must have been carefully prepared in those trial runs earlier in the day.
Sniping apart, the major differences were over the European Union and the economic crisis, with Hollande claiming that European leaders are rallying to his call to renengotiate the euro stability pact and Sarkozy insisting that austerity is needed to balance the budget.
The debate saw a great deal of bickering about figures, leading to speculation that the press would reveal who was right and who was wrong on Thursday.
It has indeed. A blog on the website of the prestigious Le Monde newspaper found:
Unemployment: both were right – Hollande’s claim that it has risen by 700,000 during Sarkozy’s mandate was based on French government statistics, Sarkozy’s figure of 422,000 is based on the International Labour Office;
Debt: Sarkozy was right - according to the Insee statistics institute it has risen 505.7 billion euros and not 600 billion, as Hollande claimed;
Silvio Berlusconi: Hollande was right – Sarkozy vehemently denied that People of Freedom, the party of departed Italian prime minister, was part of the same group in the European parliament as his UMP, the PPE, but it is and the president should know, since both men attended a PPE congress in Marseille in December 2011;
Immigration: Sarkozy was wrong – he claimed that the number of legal entries was at its highest when Socialist Lionel Jospin was prime minister in 2002 at 215,000 but a ministerial report puts it at 207,000 in 2002 and 216,580 in 2003, when he himself had become interior minister - Hollande put the annual average figure under Jospin at 150,000;
Fund-raising president: Sarkozy was wrong – he denied attending a party fund-raiser with wealthy donors at the swish Hotel Bristol, thus using the presidency for party political purposes, but an article in Le Parisien newspaper quoted a participant saying that the guests were “delighted to have the head of state to themselves for a few moments”.
For all Sarkozy’s declared optimism, he faces a major disadvantage today compared to 2007 – he is sitting president during a major economic crisis. He may have mastery of the figures but, whenever he makes a promise to boost employment or improve living standards, voters are bound to ask why he has not already done it.
The debate is likely to have confirmed viewers’ already existing prejudices, rather than changed many minds. In any case, pollsters say that no TV debate has ever made more than one per cent difference – not quite the result that Sarkozy needs.
The latest poll shows a 0.5 per cent rise for Sarkozy.
Liberal presidential candidate François Bayrou late Thursday announced that he would vote Hollande. In 2007 he refused to back either candidate.