French presidential race heating up

French President Nicolas Sarkozy repeatedly accused his leftist challenger Francois Hollande of lying as they faced off in a highly anticipated debate Wednesday ahead of the presidential election.

PARIS — French President Nicolas Sarkozy repeatedly accused his leftist challenger Francois Hollande of lying as they faced off in a highly anticipated debate Wednesday ahead of the presidential election.

The heated comments reflected the intensity of the contest, especially for Sarkozy, who is lagging in the polls ahead of Sunday’s vote. The debate is seen as the sharp-tongued Sarkozy’s last chance to lure voters behind his bid for a second term.

“It’s a lie! It’s a lie!” Sarkozy repeated during an exchange on economic policies. The Socialist contender also repeatedly denied some of Sarkozy’s claims, insisting, “I never said that.”

It is the only time the two have faced off in the campaign, which has largely focused on domestic issues such as the weak economy, immigration, and integration of French Muslims. Yet the outcome is considered crucial to the rest of Europe as well, because France is a major economic engine at a time when the eurozone is trying to climb out of a debt crisis.

Sarkozy says France needs to do more to cut spending and debts, while Hollande favours government-funded stimulus programs. Both have pushed for similar approaches for the rest of the continent as well.

Sarkozy lashed at out at his critics, especially regarding his handling of the economy, while noting Hollande’s lack of government experience.

Hollande called for national unity and social justice, repeatedly using one of his campaign catchwords: “rassemblement,” or “bringing together” — to stress the contrast between him and the divisive Sarkozy.

“You are incapable of maintaining a reasoning without being disagreeable with your interlocutor,” Hollande said.

Sarkozy said he’s being unfairly blamed for France’s economic problems after years of crisis, and insisted he’s not “the only guilty one.”

“Mr. Sarkozy, you would have a hard time passing for a victim,” Hollande riposted. “It’s never your fault. You always have a scapegoat. ’It’s not me, it’s the crisis that hit me.”’

Sarkozy said Hollande’s economic plans would send France’s debt through the roof and hurt the rest of Europe.

Hollande criticized tax reforms under Sarkozy seen by leftists as too friendly to the rich. “We are coming out of five years where France was struck down, where France was divided,” Hollande said.

Sarkozy countered, “Saying that we offered gifts to the rich … is slander. It’s a lie.”

At this, Hollande laughed.

Both the Socialists and conservatives have sought ways to lure voters who during the first round cast their ballots for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right anti-immigrant National Front party. Le Pen won a stunning 18 per cent of the first-round vote.

Sarkozy denounced those who compared him to France’s Nazi collaborators because of his tough campaign rhetoric on immigrants, or to billion-dollar investment swindler Bernard Madoff.

“Borders are not a bad word,” Sarkozy said about his calls to limit the number of immigrants France takes in.

Hollande, meanwhile, took a similar position to Sarkozy — and an unusually firm one for a leftist in France — when it came to special treatment for France’s large Muslim community.

He said he would not allow separate menus in public cafeterias or separate hours in swimming pools for men and women to satisfy Muslims’ demands, and also said he would firmly support France’s ban on the face-covering Islamic veils.

Sarkozy took a predator pose from the outset, leaning forward on the desk through much of the debate. Hollande frequently leaned back in his chair, raising his voice less often, and at one point even appeared to yawn.

Sarkozy’s assertive posture, in another setting, could be seen as a good thing for a debate. But one of the things his critics dislike most about him is a personality seen as too aggressive, so it may not work in his favour.

The pair had a particularly lively exchange over gas prices. Hollande promised to freeze gas prices if they rise too high, saying his rival wants to “leave the French to live with these prices.”

Sarkozy shot back, “Letting the French think that the prices of oil and the price of gas will be able to go down, and we can block the prices, there is no country in the world that reacts like this. And naturally, it’s the taxpayer who will pay for this.”

The debate was preceded by the kind of dramatic build-up normally reserved for a heavyweight boxing championship, even though experts say past debates have never swung a French election, regardless of who comes off better in the televised showdown.

Sarkozy has been waging an aggressive bid to destabilize the even-keeled — some say plodding — Hollande, a longtime Socialist Party boss who’s never held high government office.

Already last month, Sarkozy was telling close confidants that he would “atomize” and “rip to shreds” Hollande in the debate, French media reported. Sarkozy also tried, and failed, to get Hollande to agree to three debates, then spent days taunting his rival much like a schoolboy shouting “fraidy cat!”

Sarkozy knows he’s the underdog. No poll has predicted he will win re-election, and leading figures in his government are already lining up new jobs.

Debate watchers are on the lookout for clashes of the kind that demonstrate the candidates’ personalities, like the classic 1988 debate between President Francois Mitterrand and France’s then-prime minister, Jacques Chirac.

In an exchange that has become part of French election lore, Chirac repeatedly tried and failed to get a haughty Mitterrand to drop the formalities so they could address each other as Mr. Chirac and Mr. Mitterrand.

“Permit me to say to you that tonight I am not the prime minister and you are not the president of the republic. We are two equal candidates who are submitting themselves to the judgment of the French, like anyone. You will thus permit me to call you ’Mr. Mitterrand,”’ Chirac said.

“You are completely right, Mr. Prime Minister,” Mitterrand retorted with the hint of a smirk.

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