French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Francois Hollande clash repeatedly in their only television debate ahead of the election.
Hollande, ahead in opinion polls by six to 10 points, seemed calm and unflappable during the nearly three-hour debate on Wednesday.
At one point President Sarkozy called his rival a “little slanderer”.
Channel 4 News Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Rugman blogs from Tulle:
I talked to a good friend of Hollande’s this morning: Bernard Combes, who succeeded Hollande as mayor of the town of Tulle in southern France. He told me a psychological barrier had been overcome last night, because Hollande had proved himself capable of running the country.
“People want a calm face in charge, not a frantic head of state,” was how he put it. And after several weeks on the campaign trail, the conclusion I’ve reached is that this election may be less about policies or unemployment or the Euro crisis or immigration – and more about a perceived need to restore dignity to the role of French President after the hyperactive Sarkozy years.
5 years ago, France voted for Sarkozy because it thought it wanted change. Now it has tried him, France may be about to change its mind again.
Political commentators said the confrontation was not a game-changer and probably only reinforced voters’ opinions of their two champions in a contest that has been as much about style and personality as substance.
“This debate should not shift things and as Francois Hollande is in the position of favourite, he’s the one that should benefit,” said analyst Jerome Fourquet at pollster Ifop.
French television commentators concluded that Sarkozy had performed “like a boxer” and Hollande “like a judo fighter”, using touches of wit and interjections to unbalance his adversary.
Hollande, 57, was confident and relaxed in early exchanges, saying he aimed to be “the president of justice”, “the president of revival” and “the president of unity”.
He said Sarkozy, also 57 and in office since 2007, had divided the French people for too long and was using the global economic crisis as an excuse for broken promises. “With you it’s very simple: it’s never your fault,” Hollande said.
Sarkozy, fighting for his political life, repeatedly accused his opponent of lying about economic figures and reeled off reams of statistics in an attempt to unbalance his rival.
“Mr Hollande. When you lie so shamelessly, do I have to accept it?” he asked when his opponent said the president was always happy with his record.
The two sparred over Europe, which has become one of the biggest issues of the election race, along with the sickly economy, rife unemployment, nuclear power and immigration.
“The example I want to follow is Germany and not Spain or Greece,” Sarkozy said, declaring that he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had saved Greece from an economic wipeout and avoided the collapse of the euro currency.
“Europe has got over it,” Sarkozy said of the crisis.
Hollande shot back: “Europe has not got over it. Europe is today facing a possible resurgence of the crisis with generalised austerity, and that’s what I don’t want.”
Hollande, who vowed to push for a new focus on growth to allow the euro zone to convalesce, said people across Europe were watching the election in the hope it would change the bloc’s economic direction for the better.