- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

PARIS — Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal and her rightist rival Nicolas Sarkozy exchanged verbal jabs during an ill-tempered televised debate yesterday that could determine the winner of Sunday’s runoff election.

Trailing in the opinion polls, Miss Royal came out fighting from the start of the marathon clash, immediately challenging Mr. Sarkozy over the record of the outgoing government, in which he served as both interior minister and finance minister.

“What have you done during the past five years? There is a problem of credibility here,” Miss Royal said, often interrupting Mr. Sarkozy during quick-fire exchanges on a range of issues from the economy to security, from nuclear energy to pensions.

Responding to the combative attacks of Miss Royal, Mr. Sarkozy at one point accused his rival of losing her temper during a row over schools for the disabled.

“At least [this has] served one purpose, which is to show that you get angry very quickly, you go off the rails very easily, Madame. A president is someone who has very serious responsibilities,” Mr. Sarkozy said.

The first and only debate in the election race was shown live on two main television channels and was expected to be watched by nearly half of France’s 44.5 million voters.

Mr. Sarkozy topped the first-round election on April 22 with 31.2 percent of the ballot, while Miss Royal came in second with 25.9 percent. They have since battled to win the backing of centrist voters, who hold the key to the May 6 runoff.

For Miss Royal, the debate was a last chance to overtake the front-runner, who has weathered constant opposition accusations that he is too aggressive.

Seated opposite each other, they traded arguments on ways to cut government debt and reorganize France’s army of civil servants, getting especially heated over the 35-hour workweek that the last Socialist government introduced.

“The 35-hour week was a complete catastrophe, it has to be said, for the French economy,” said Mr. Sarkozy, prompting Miss Royal to ask why the government had not changed it.

Mr. Sarkozy often seemed to hold back in the debate, which ran over the scheduled two hours, rarely staring Miss Royal in the eye and talking instead to the pair of presiding journalists — and the camera.

He challenged the Socialist candidate when she announced a plan to tax earnings from stocks in order to pay for higher pensions, without saying how much the measure would cost.

“That’s a stunning piece of detail. Can’t you give us a figure?” Mr. Sarkozy asked repeatedly.

Both candidates have sought in recent days to downplay the importance of the debate. Such events have proved important in past elections, notably in 1974, when centrist Valery Giscard d’Estaing outpointed the Socialist candidate, Francois Mitterrand.

“I think I was elected because of this debate,” M. Giscard d’Estaing told RTL radio yesterday. He said the eagerly awaited Sarkozy-Royal match could prove just as fateful.

Mr. Sarkozy is one of the most forceful speakers in French politics, and polls show more voters say he has the stature of a president. But advisers have urged him play it safe in the debate and tone down his aggressive instincts.

Miss Royal, aiming to be France’s first female president with a combination of left-wing economic policies and traditional social values, is seen as more sympathetic to everyday concerns, but uncertain when it comes to policy detail.

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