French President Nicolas Sarkozy launched fierce assaults on his Socialist rival Francois Hollande in their pre-poll debate Wednesday but failed to land a decisive blow against the frontrunner.
The pair swapped insults in often tense exchanges without either dominating, but Socialist challenger Hollande had gone into the televised clash as favourite in the vote and appeared to emerge unscathed.
With four days to go before Sunday’s run-off and the right-wing incumbent having trailed in opinion polls for more than six months, he did not hesitate to go on the attack, calling Hollande a “liar” and “arrogant” several times.
Hollande’s response was just as fierce and sometimes mocking, accusing Sarkozy of refusing to take responsibility for his record and accusing him of self-satisfaction in a period of grim economic crisis.
“Whatever comes along, whatever happens, you’re always satisfied,” Hollande declared, after an early exchange on the economy. “That’s a lie! A lie!” retorted Sarkozy.
Hollande bridled at being called a liar, but quickly regained his composure, saying: “It’s obviously a theme I should find intolerable, but coming from your mouth, it just becomes repetitive.”
Tempers flared again when Hollande accused Sarkozy of stuffing senior posts in government, the media and industry with political cronies and the president responded by calling him a “little slanderer”.
Sarkozy denied having been a divisive figure, insisting that there had been no violence and no mood of “civil war” during his first five-year term.
He scored some points off Hollande when the pair debated immigration, with his opponent vague on some of the aspects of his plans, while the Socialist was strong on the economy, hammering the incumbent on unemployment.
“With you it’s very simple. Nothing is ever your fault,” Hollande said.
Both 57-year-old political veterans will hold another major rally each before the campaign comes to an official end at midnight on Friday.