PARIS — France's two presidential candidates held a spirited televised debate — the only one before Sunday's vote — but a pollster said Thursday that incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy did not pull off the clear victory that he needed to win re-election.
The conservative Sarkozy has trailed Socialist challenger Francois Hollande throughout the campaign in the polls and needed a knockout performance Wednesday night. After the debate, pollsters said the mild-mannered Hollande was surprisingly resilient in the bitter back-and-forths with his longtime rival.
"Now the campaign is pretty much finished," Gael Sliman, a pollster at BVA agency, told the Associated Press. "With the exception of a completely unforeseen catastrophe in the next 48 hours, Francois Hollande is going to win the presidential election in France."
The result of the runoff will set the course for the next five years for France, a nuclear-armed country with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. It could reshape the debate in the 17-nation eurozone — which Sarkozy has helped guide along with Germany's Angela Merkel — on how best to resolve the European debt crisis amid sluggish growth across the continent.
The top two French networks that co-hosted Wednesday night's debate estimated at least 19.5 million people, or about a third of France's population, tuned in. Networks TF1 and France-2 television reported a peak audience of 19.5 million viewers — though that does not include the figures on at least three cable-news channels that also aired the debate.
And even the candidates admitted it was spirited.
"I thought going in it would be to be bitter, and it was," Hollande told France-2 television Thursday. Sarkozy, on RTL radio, said he'd enjoyed the "strong" debate in which "we both didn't give too many concessions."
The verdict in France's daily newspapers was mixed: Le Parisien headlined about a "harsh" debate, and conservative Le Figaro's front page read; "High Tension." The Left-leaning Liberation wrote: "Hollande presided over the debate."
Hollande yielded no ground in the verbal slugfest, in which the two traded accusations about flawed claims by the other: Sarkozy called his rival a "little slanderer" and repeatedly said he had lied.
Mediametrie, which tracks audiences, said the debate still attracted a smaller audience than in the 2007 race, when Sarkozy debated Segolene Royal, France's first woman to qualify for the presidential election runoff.
On the streets of Paris, the nearly three-hour clash was on many lips — though it was tough to tell how many minds might have been swayed over the debate performances.
Critics of Sarkozy have often faulted him for his brash style, alleged chumminess with the rich and inability to reverse France's tough economic fortunes and nearly double-digit jobless rate.
Sarkozy, for his part, has defended his record as better than others amid economic woes across Europe.
"Even the French who don't like him or voted for him say Nicolas Sarkozy is courageous, is someone who has authority," said Sliman, the pollster. "Yet during the debate, he indeed had many ticks, he was sometimes ... giving the impression of someone lost."
Hollande is often derided by critics as too indecisive and unwilling to make tough choices to cut a bloated state budget. State spending makes up more than 56 percent of economic output in France, one of the highest such rates in the 27-nation European Union.
• Oleg Cetinic and Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.