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French presidential candidates debate budget, taxes and life on Mars

media Sarkozy hits the big screen during Thursday's quizzing of presidential … Reuters/Thomas Samson

The second televised debate in France’s presidential election campaign saw the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy concentrate his fire on his main rival, a robust defence of plans to tax the rich and a half-hearted defence of plans to colonise Mars.

With 10 candidates standing in the first round of voting on 22 April, France 2 television has split them into two batches of five. That means we will have to wait for the second round to see the two poll favourites confront each other, assuming that Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande do make it through to the face-off.

That didn’t stop Sarkozy taking on Hollande, who appeared in Wednesday’s broadcast, in his absence, predicting that the economy would face wrack and ruin if the Socialist’s “irresponsible” programme was put into effect.

French candidates don’t actually debate with each other, in any case, but appear one by one before a panel of well-known journalists. And, in case the viewers don’t know what to make of it all, two more journalists – Le Point's Franz-Olivier Giesbert and Héléne Jouans, once of RFI now at France Inter radio - discuss the show at the end.

In Thursday’s proceedings the hacks started off bullying self-styled centrist François Bayrou and outsider’s outsider Jacques Cheminade but ended up being bullied by hard-left champion Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He took a top TV presenter to task over his earnings and informed the media representatives, “You manipulate me, I manipulate you. That’s the game.”

François Bayrou (Modem) is unlikely to have turned around his poor performance in the opinion polls with Thursday evening’s performance. After a strong start – a refusal to retract remarks about a climate of intolerance after Mohamed Merah’s Toulouse killings – he continued with a detailed defence of his economic policies – rigour to balance the budget and a “produced in France” label to encourage patriotic shopping.

Reminded that Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppé had hinted that he could become  prime minister if Sarkozy is reelected, Bayrou simpered, “There are a lot of nice things being said about me these days, both on my right and my left.”

Jacques Cheminade (Solidarité et Progrès) will not have shaken off his reputation as the wacky candidate, even if he revealed a knowledge of culture and science that few other candidates could match. With undisguised relish his questioners asked about his proposal to fund a space programme aimed at colonising the planet Mars.

“That’s only 20 pages out of 368 in my programme,” he pleaded. “It’s much more important to end speculation.”

But most viewers will probably remember the plan to conquer the cosmos … and the blown-up cover of the Tintin book Destination moon looming over the studio while the matter was discussed.

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Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP), buoyed up by a recovery in the opinion polls, took aim at Socialist François Hollande, accusing him of being the spend-spend-spend candidate.

“He says there are no public spending problems in our country,” Sarkozy asserted. “He says … that we will take on 61,000 extra public employees. I say, if the French show their confidence in me, we will continue to reduce spending and the number of public employees.”

The notoriously thin-skinned incumbent became splenetic when reminded that Green candidate Eva Joly had accused him of dubious financial dealings during his 2007 election campaign and was less than pleased to be told that the London Financial Times has predicted his defeat and finds his economic policies too austere.

Despite having run the country for the last five years, Sarkozy adopted the surprising pose of an anti-élite rebel. At his rally in central Paris on Sunday “the silent majority will say some important things to the media, to the intellectual orthodoxy”, he claimed.

Nathalie Arthaud (Lutte Ouvrière), the self-styled “only communist standing”, is another politician with low name recognition, but has inherited the mantle of veteran Trotskyist and serial presidential candidate Arlette Laguiller. In a style that oscillated between the assertive and the strident she admitted that she had little chance of being elected. If she is, it will be thanks to mass unrest on the streets, she said.

Challenged on her intention to scrap VAT, she said she would, in fact, “double, triple, multiply [it] by 10” on luxury goods such as Vuitton bags and yachts.

Strangely for someone with an economics degree, she produced few figures to back up her arguments.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Front de Gauche) had great difficulty convincing his questioners that the recent leap in his support has not gone to his head. Ebullient as ever, he insisted that his good fortune is not helping Sarkozy by attracting votes away from Hollande. He stood by his proposal to tax income over 30,000 euros per month at 100 per cent, unfazed by the example of a son of the banlieue turned film star, Omar Sy, whose earnings have apparently leapt to these dizzy heights.

Whether by design or by accident, Mélenchon managed to talk so much that the panel was unable to ask him about his plans in case he fails to make it to the second round. All the other candidates had faced such a question and none seemed keen to respond to the invitation to envisage defeat.

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