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Francois Hollande (L), Socialist party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, and Nicolas Sarkozy (front R), France's President and UMP party candidate for his re-election, are seen with journalists David Pujadas and Laurence Ferrari (back 2nd R) before a televised debate at studios in La Plaine Saint-Denis, near Paris, May 2, 2012. (Patrick Kovarik/REUTERS)
Francois Hollande (L), Socialist party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, and Nicolas Sarkozy (front R), France's President and UMP party candidate for his re-election, are seen with journalists David Pujadas and Laurence Ferrari (back 2nd R) before a televised debate at studios in La Plaine Saint-Denis, near Paris, May 2, 2012. (Patrick Kovarik/REUTERS)

In debate, Sarkozy fails to upend Socialist challenger Add to ...

After nearly three hours of intense exchanges, dozens of accusations of “liar” and “slanderer,” 137 statistical citations and a tsunami of finger-pointing, hand-waving and gesticulation, there was something of a consensus on France’s only presidential debate.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, almost everyone agreed, had failed in his self-stated mission to “explode” the “nullity” of his challenger, Socialist Party Leader Francois Hollande. While few were terribly impressed with the arguments of Mr. Hollande, a former party insider who has never been in a major debate before, most agreed that he had held his ground and allowed Mr. Sarkozy to knock himself out.

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“Hollande entered the debate in the leading position, and there he still remains,” Le Monde wrote, and most other publications agreed.

Mr. Hollande’s style lacked the glamour and personability of Mr. Sarkozy’s – while the conservative president began the evening by addressing the camera directly, in the style of a North American politician, Mr. Hollande stared only at his opponent, and the long evening devolved into an out-and-out argument between two men who often seemed oblivious to the TV cameras.

But Mr. Hollande’s physical style – he sat ramrod straight, with few gestures beyond poking his pen at his interlocutor – caused the famously hyperactive Mr. Sarkozy to seem skittish and explosive, and in his more animated exchanges, such as those about immigration, the president appeared to be bobbing about like a bladder on a stick.

“Sarkozy-Hollande: A confrontation without mercy,” read a headline in the conservative Le Figaro, whose editors described it as a battle between the old (embodied by Mr. Hollande’s rather traditional left-wing views) and the new (in Mr. Sarkozy’s modernizing, liberalizing tendencies). Despite that, Le Figaro’s political editor acknowledged that Mr. Sarkozy had failed to deflate his opponent: “Hollande has managed to avoid all the pitfalls.”

The left-wing newspaper Liberation didn’t hesitate to declare a victor: “Hollande commands the debate,” it declared in a front page that went to press before the debate was even a third over.

Some exchanges are now infamous: Mr. Sarkozy declaring his opponent a “little slanderer” ( petit calumniator) and several other moments where he utterly lost his presidential cool. Or his closing remark, where he made a direct appeal to the supporters of extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen, known for her racially intolerant policies: “To those of you who voted for Le Pen,” he said, “I respect you, I share your desire for borders and security.”

Some conservatives defended Mr. Sarkozy’s approach on the grounds of its arguments: “He showed himself to be the president of the modern,” said foreign minister Alain Juppé, while Mr. Hollande was “very Fourth Republic” – a reference to the French governments before the reforms of Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s. Mr. Sarkozy, he said, was “pugnacious, precise, coherent in explaining his proposals on employment and competitiveness,” while Mr. Hollande had “an obsession with the past.”

But few seemed to want to discuss the president’s style or his decision to resort to insults. That continued Thursday morning, when Mr. Sarkozy used a sequence of interviews to denounce Mr. Hollande’s arguments as “lies.”

It is an angry approach that does not seem to have given him the coup de grace he had predicted. The first poll taken Monday morning, by LH2, showed Mr. Hollande at 52 per cent and Mr. Sarkozy at 48 – a slight improvement over Wednesday, but still far from a resounding reversal.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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