Welcome to Paris! It's a grey, rainy night, perfect for 20 million people to watch their two presidential contenders slug it out. Let the gesticulating, eyebrow-raising, finger pointing and puffing of cheeks in outrage begin.
Tonight's two-hour debate could be the decisive event for conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy, who hopes to use his rhetorical prowess to narrow the gap with Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande. The latest polls show Mr. Hollande leading 53% to 47% in Sunday's final presidential vote, a gap that is half a percentage point better for Mr. Sarkozy than it was yesterday.
Tonight's debate is actually taking place in a custom-built studio in Plaine-Saint-Denis, a grotty light-industrial area in the northern reaches of Paris. In keeping with French tradition, the set is as bland and neutral as possible, with the two candidates facing each other across a table with a photo of the Elysee Palace in the background. Despite the presence of 20 TV cameras, the screen will only show the faces of the candidates speaking: Reaction shots, cutaways to the listening opponent and side profiles are forbidden. Not only are the candidates to be given precisely the same time as one another to speak, but they have heat controls at their desks to ensure that they are both at the same temperature. So there will be full égalité, but not much liberté - - and we shouldn't be expecting much fraternité tonight.
Hollande opens with a narrative of his presidency: I will be a president of justice. I will be a president of recovery. Sarkozy was a divider, I will be a unifier. And restore confidence.
Sarkozy "What Mr. Hollande is saying is rather traditional. I would like to do something new..." He'd have the French people deciding everything among themselves, it seems.
Sarkozy is still better at the television thing: He looks at the TV viewer, while Hollande looks at Sarkozy. But this might work in Hollande's favour: He seems scholarly, Sarkozy showy.
Sarkozy accuses Hollande: "I am not a man of my party. I do not talk only to socialists and union leaders."
Hollande fires back successfully at Sarkozy's "unite the people" claim: You haven't united the people during your five years in office, you've divided them. Sarkozy responds that there hasn't been violence in France during that period (implying that there will be after, as there was before).
Hollande made the mistake of quoting (he would say crediting) unions -- Sarkozy fires back, suggesting that his party's under the thumb of the unions. (France has the lowest unionization rate of any major European country, and many voters do see unionized workers as a protected clique).
Sarkozy goes on about the Socialist-backing unions that have called him an ultra-right-winger, a fascist, etc. Hollande zinger: "Mr. Sarkozy, I have a hard time believing that you are a victim."
Now Hollande calls for economic growth, public investment, a development bank -- using government spending to get the economy going. Sarkozy has only created high unemployment. Sarkozy says: By attacking me, you're belittling the great accomplishments of France. Yes, unemployment went up -- but I have been able to keep it much lower than in Spain or Greece, and that's a great accomplishment.
Hollande retorts: But you promised unemploymnet would be down to 5 per cent in five years. Now it's 10 per cent. (Things regress into a numerological exegesis)
Hollande: Don't compare us to Greece or Spain, compare us to Germany -- we look way worse. Here's the old division: Is France a northern European export powerhouse, or a Mediterranean indebted and dependent economy? Yes to both.
Sarkozy seems to be cornered on the economic issues. He's trying to be an outsider: I will come in and repair France's competitiveness problem. Hollande keeps firing back that Sarkozy's been in power for a decade, 5 years as president and 5 before that in cabinet, and why has he accomplished so little on this?
RT @KrsBauer: #Sarkozy dividing attention to #Hollande and debate moderators. Hollande keeping his eyes locked on Sarkozy. #France
Sarkozy interrupts Hollande's economic manifesto to call it "lies and distortions" -- then proceeds to say "Let me teach you a lesson," and starts talking about debt ratios. Hollande: "You can't teach me anything." But Sarkozy continues, saying they should model their economy on Germany, with lower labour costs, not on the Mediterranean, with its short work weeks....
Hollande to Sarkozy: "Nothing is ever your fault. It's just too easy to blame the economic crisis always..."
RT @KarimLebhour: Somebody needs to tell #Hollande iPad is not pronounce "ePad". He sounds like an fool...
Sarkozy is citing Germany an awful lot... this perhaps draws attention to Hollande's lack of cooperation or rapport with Angela Merkel, but it could backfire: French voters don't necessarily want to hear about Germany a lot. And he repeatedly calls Hollande's claims "lies," which makes him sound angry.
Sarkozy zinger: "You accept that Germany is doing better than France, but you won't accept the German policies that made it that way."
RT @mtwirth: Sarkozy = defendant; Hollande = prosecutor #LeDebat
This has become a bit schoolyard. Hollande: The odd thing about you is that you're always happy, no matter what happens. Sarkozy: That's not true at all. Hollande: So you're unhappy? Things descend into an unmoderated crossfire.
Hollande: You say "lie" a lot. It must be terrible, having that word deep in your heart.
After that barrage of numbers, counter-numbers and accusations, I'm not sure how many of the 20 million French viewers are still tuned in.
Moderator: "It's been 58 minutes, and we're still talking about public finances." Hollande is not letting Sarkozy get the upper hand. Sarkozy is insisting on having the last word in each exchange. Therefore the debate stays frozen in a circular pattern.
“@jrug: I'm watching live Sarko Hollande tv debate in a bar in Hollande's constituency of Tulle and nobody's taking slightest bit of notice"
Now they're on to nuclear power. This could get tedious. But wait: Hollande makes it into another public-debt question.
Hollande launches an ingenious attack, accusing Sarkozy of driving up France's public debt through excessive public spending and largesse (he doesn't actually use the word "bling," but that's the implication. Risk here: Sarko could ask him why he's then trying to increase spending further.
Sarkozy getting angry, firing numbers back, using the pinched-fingers gesture. Hollande raising eyebrows above glasses and jabbing the air with his pen.
RT @yorksranter: Sarko amazingly queeny. Everything is "blessant", "calomnieuse". If he had pearls he'd be clutching them. Like that in ...
Hollande: You can't respond to anything without insulting your interlocutor. And you call yourself a uniter of the people?" SNAP.
RT @mathieuvonrohr: #Sarkozy can't hide his contempt for #Hollande. And #Hollande can't hide he finds #Sarkozy disgusting. #LeDébat
Sarkozy: Laurent Fabius (former Socialist PM) thinks you're ridiculous. Hollande: Yes, well what about Liliane Bettencourt (the L'Oreal heiress caught up in a fundraising-corruption scandal).
Hollande attacks Sarkozy for raising the pension age to 62 (in most European countries, it's going up to 67). Only in France....
Hollande: I protect the children of the republic, you protect the privileged. Sarkozy: I don't give any gifts to the rich. Hollande: Then how much do you tax them? Sarkozy: I don't have to answer... (et cetera)
Sarkozy to Hollande: The difference between me and you is, you want fewer rich, I want fewer poor. (A good line, actually) Hollande: No, you want the rich richer and the poor poorer.
(Hollande really does seem to believe he can raise revenue by putting a 75% tax on millionaires... in practice, this doesn't work -- those incomes simply cease to exist, moving abroad or changing to non-income items... but his advisers tell me that it's a "symbolic" tax).
RT @doctorbjorn: #Hollande succeeds in making #Sarkozy visibly angry and churlish. #ledebat @DougSaunders
I would not want to be a moderator in the French debate. They're journalists, but the rules prevent them from any questioning or moderating.
RT @sprykritic: Temps de parole à 22h13 :
F. Hollande : 32:00
N. Sarkozy : 31:17
D. Pujadas : 00:46
L. Ferrari : -02:52
Now they're debating Europe, the ECB, the EU: Both claim to be pro-Europe, both want to shut things down in various ways.
RT @afneil: Sarko continually holds up Germany as template to follow. But he hasn't made France more like Germany #France2012