2 May 2012

Sarkozy hopes for knockout blow in Presidential debate

It’s their only debate of the campaign: tonight Nicolas Sarkozy and his rival Francois Hollande face off in a televised clash, that is being billed as the ‘Final Confrontation’.

Sarkozy giving a speech (getty)

He might be the president, but Nicolas Sarkozy is definitely the underdog: heading into Sunday’s run-off election some seven points behind his Socialist rival. And in an election campaign which has notably been rather short on drama, tonight’s debate promises at least some of the thrills – in a contest this bitterly fought, the gloves are definitely coming off.

Sarkozy is well known as a formidable debater, and this is his last opportunity to transform his political fortunes. Former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told France-Info radio the face-off would be very intense. “Nicolas Sarkozy goes into the debate like a challenger, so he’s going to have to take a certain number of risks” , he said.

It’s not a contest of words, it’s a moment of truth. Nicolas Sarkozy

In fact Sarkozy has been gunning for the chance to debate with Francois Hollande since the outset, originally demanding as many as three head-to-head debates and predicting he would rip his opponent to shreds. He boasted that he was going into the encounter “without any coaching”, although he spent the whole of Wednesday at home, working on his strategy. “It’s not a contest of words, it’s a moment of truth”, he told supporters.

As for Hollande, he has been getting some coaching from his former partner Segolene Royal, with whom he has four children. She ran as the Socialist candidate against Sarkozy in 2007, and did not come off at her best during the presidential debate. Sarkozy first goaded her, then turned patronising: “You become unhinged very easily, Madame”, he taunted, as Royal shouted: “I’m not losing my nerve. I’m angry. It’s different.”

Royal advice

This time, Royal told French television that she had advised Hollande to “hit back, when you get hit.”, and to stick to his line, whatever the distraction. “Avoid falling into traps or one-upmanship that risk degrading the debate”, she said, warning that the aftermath and the “media debate after the debate” were just as important.

The two and a half hour encounter is being moderated by two French television newscasters, and is likely to focus on the economy, Sarkozy’s record in office, and Hollande’s relative lack of experience. A strict set of rules has been drawn up, with Hollande winning the random draw to make the opening statement, and equal time alloted for each candidate. Everything, from the position of the cameras to the precise temperature of the heating, has been carefully agreed.

Yet however powerful Sarkozy’s rhetorical skills, debates have rarely changed the course of a French presidential election. The closest occasion came in 1974, with a brilliantly timed riposte from Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, who rounded on his Socialist opponent Francois Mitterand, saying: “You do not have a monopoly on compassion.”

Anger on the streets

This time, however, the loudest rhetoric has been out on the streets, after months of angry protests over Sarkozy’s austerity measures and rising unemployment which is now at its highest level for twelve years. The far-right Front National, whose candidate Marine Le Pen won a record number of votes in the first round of the elections, told her supporters to abstain on Sunday, despite Sarkozy’s every effort to woo them over.

Bernard Sananes, head of the CSA polling institute told BFM television that Sarkozy would need to win over one and a half million voters to his side, to secure re-election. “It won’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” he said. If he doesn’t, however, he will become the first president since Giscard d’Estaing in 1981 to fail to win a second term in office.

No wonder French newspapers are describing tonight’s debate as “The Last Duel”.