Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande showed “he had what it takes to lead the country” in a bruising two hour and 45 minutes televised face-off with an “aggressive” incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday, according to the French media.
Trailing Hollande in the polls by around six points, many saw Wednesday evening’s debate as Sarkozy’s crucial last opportunity to outflank his rival ahead of Sunday’s second round of the presidential election.
Sarkozy is known as a strong and combative debater – and had even challenged Hollande to three televised head-to-heads.
Sarkozy and Hollande trade barbs during their first and only televised presidential debate.
But the majority of opinion in the French media on Thursday found that the Socialist candidate had stubbornly held his ground in the face of an aggressive incumbent on fighting form.
Left-leaning press admits a draw
France’s left wing newspaper of reference Le Monde praised Hollande for resisting attack after attack by Sarkozy, defending a barrage of facts and figures with repeated counter attacks that demonstrated “that he knew all the details and could maintain a presidential composure.”
The Socialist candidate held his own as Sarkozy tried to “play the teacher to Hollande the pupil,” said the newspaper’s columnist Francoise Fressoz.
“The result was a draw,” she said. “Hollande started off as favourite, and he finished as favourite. Mr Sarkozy was unable to destabilise him, which was evidently his strategy from the beginning of the debate.”
Left-leaning Liberation said that the confrontation was the “toughest since 1988”, according to columnist Alain Duhamel, who presided over the 1974 and 1995 TV debates.
“Sarkozy was very natural and very aggressive,” Dumahel wrote. “Hollande was firm and sharp. Both demonstrated a strong will to show that they had what it takes to lead the country.”
‘No political earthquake’ says regional press
France’s influential and generally less politically biased regional newspapers found that the debate, for all its tough talk and the attempts by both candidates to outdo each other with detailed facts and figures, did not change the status quo.
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Ouest France, the country’s biggest regional title (with a circulation of 800,000, France’s second biggest newspaper) said the debate “would have the principal effect of anchoring the existing opinions of voters.”
And L’Est Republicain’s columnist Remi Godeau wrote that “this crucial debate will not cause a political earthquake.”
“It was a good fight that won’t do much to change the balance of power on Sunday,” said Le Republicain Lorrain. “But Francois Hollande, in his behaviour and in his attitude, was the more presidential of the two.”
La Montagne agreed that if Hollande took away any advantage, it was that he had demonstrated a presidential image, while Brittany’s Le Telegramme said that “while on the form it was an even draw, in substance it was like watching a pair of deaf people arguing points and where no progress can be found.”
“Neither candidate sank under the pressure, while both stayed firmly within their own ideologies,” said the Journal de Haute Marne.
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Conservative daily Le Figaro was the only daily newspaper that still believed that Sarkozy had shown a clear lead and could still claim victory on Sunday.
Criticising Hollande’s “old fashioned socialist language”, the newspaper’s senior columnist Paul-Henri du Limbert said the left was out of touch and that the French people could still choose Sarkozy on Sunday.
“Sarkozy reminded his rival that the world has changed since the socialists were last in power,” he wrote, arguing that the French left’s biggest talent was “looking to the past” and criticised as outdated promises to lower the minimum age of retirement and increase taxes on the rich.
Whatever the media’s verdict, Europe 1 radio on Thursday published a poll which showed its listeners were not so on the fence. Of some 40,000 voters at noon on Thursday, 54% thought Hollande had come out top, with 34% favouring Sarkozy and 10% seeing the debate as an even draw.