“Everything must be debated,” insisted French President Nicolas Sarkozy shortly after finding out his bid for re-election would hinge on a run-off vote against Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande.
Sarkozy meant exactly what he said, and immediately challenged Hollande to three televised debates before the May 6 vote, instead of the usual one demanded by French electoral tradition.
The president wanted three separate bouts on the subjects of economy, international affairs and social issues, raising his demands from a week ago when he suggested two debates would suffice.
Sarkozy’s request was derided by Hollande and quickly rebuffed. “He’s like a bad pupil at school who just wants to change the test because he got a bad result,” said the 57-year-old.
With Sarkozy trailing Hollande from the first round vote by 27.18% to 28.63%, and polls suggesting a comfortable victory for the socialist in the second round, many see his request for more air time as a sign of desperation.
Last throw of the dice
Penned in for the evening of May 2, the debate will give Sarkozy around two hours of live TV to argue his case against Hollande, with the eyes of the nation upon him.
“It’s the last throw of the dice for Sarkozy,” Professor Phillippe Marliere, a French politics lecturer at London’s UCL, told FRANCE 24. “He is convinced he is far superior when it comes to debating and he will want to show the French people that he, and not Hollande, has the stature of a head of state.”
Hugues Nancy, director of Presidential Duels, a documentary on the past five French presidential debates, told French daily 20minutes on Monday that Sarkozy’s request was "ridiculous".
“The important thing is not the number of debates but to actually have things to say,” he said. “Sarkozy knew very well that there would not be three debates but he wanted to put himself in the position of challenger."
Sarkozy’s eagerness to face off live on TV will be fuelled by memories of his performance in 2007, when he was widely considered to have trounced his then-rival for the Elysees, Segolene Royal.
That night, Royal could not hide her growing agitation at Sarkozy and slammed his ‘political immorality’. A smiling Sarkozy replied: “One needs to be calm to be president”.
Hollande ‘running scared’
Only weeks ago in a briefing to journalists Sarkozy reportedly said that he would “pulverise” Hollande in the live debate.
On Monday, the president’s campaign team piled the pressure on Hollande, accusing him of running away from the challenge.
“He is afraid to confront Sarkozy, who has strength, skill and experience,” said Francois Cope, secretary general of Sarkozy’s UMP party.
Sarkozy is not the first president, struggling to make up a first round deficit, to demand more than one TV debate before the run-off vote. Valery Giscard d’Estaing wanted two face-offs with Francois Mitterrand in 1981. He did not get his way and went on to lose the election.
The ‘debate about the debate’, as it has been dubbed in France, rages on, with Hollande’s supporters eager to scorn Sarkozy.
“Sarkozy names all the bosses of the TV channels; he is not going to start deciding on what the programmes are,” Bernard Poignant, the socialist Mayor of Quimper sarcastically remarked to journalists.
Pierre Moscovici, Hollande’s spokesman, was equally scathing. “There is no reason to make a special case for Mr Sarkozy just because he is the first incumbent president to have lost the first round vote,” he said.
Hollande a seasoned politician
UCL’s Phillippe Marliere believes Sarkozy should not underestimate the debating skills of his rival, who is a seasoned politician, despite having never held a ministerial post in government, a fact Sarkozy supporters are quick to point out.
“Hollande has been in politics for over 30 years. He has led the Socialist Party, which is a difficult thing to do,” said Marliere. “He has done a good job healing the fractions and uniting rivals."
“He is very composed and statesmanlike, unlike Segolene Royal, and that will play well on TV with the French voters,” he added.
The presidential debate dates back to 1974, when Valery Giscard d’Estaing went toe to toe with Francois Mitterrand. Since then they have remained a pivotal moment in the fight for the country’s top job and are watched by millions across France.
Only in 2002, when Jacques Chirac refused to meet the far right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, a shock second round candidate, did the TV debate not take place.
According to Marliere, it would take something dramatic during the debate for the course of the 2012 election to be altered.
“Hollande would have to make a serious blunder to lose. Going back as far as I can remember, no candidate has ever lost the second round as a result of a disastrous performance in the TV debate,” he said. “A few votes may be lost here and there, but most of the time it does not impact on a voter’s choice.”
Sarkozy might have to think of another way to "pulverise" his opponent before the French return to the polls on May 6.