Last night, French citizens had their first opportunity to see the two opponents duke it out head-to-head, without pause, for more than two-and-a-half hours. You can watch it in many little parties on YouTube starting here. Sorry, no subtitles.
The New York Times offers an even-handed review of the proceedings here suggesting that neither candidate came out on top. Another review disagrees, saying Royal came out on top. She has to as she still trails by four points in polls taken before the debate.
Royal needs to nab about 60% of the voters who chose Bayrou in the first series of elections in order to close the gap. Bayrou refuses to endorse either candidate, though he has reserved his strongest criticism for Sarkozy.
I didn't have such a balanced view of the proceedings; I watched this debate at my university in France with about 40 other students. From my vantage point, it seemed as though the room went from supporting Royal in the beginning, to laughing at her missteps and Sarkozy's continual jabs. I was surprised to hear loud clapping for Sarkozy at the end while only a muted response for Ségolène.
The major turning point in the debate seemed to be when Sarkozy baited Royal with an anecdote about the injustices faced by the disabled in France. Royal bit and lost her top claiming Sarkozy was lying about his efforts while in office and calling him immoral or something like that.
The exchange went a little bit like this:
Royal: "[Your words are] the height of political immorality....describing the plight of children with a tear in your eye.”Many of the students in the room at the time seemed to echo this sentiment, clucking and sighing in exasperation, or laughing at the suddenly furious Royal who seemed to stumble right into the trap Sarkozy laid for her.
Sarkozy: “Calm down.”
Royal: “No, I will not calm down.”
Sarkozy: “Do not point at me with this finger, with this—"
Royal: “No. Yes.”
Sarkozy: “With this index finger pointed, because frankly—”
Royal: “No, I will not calm down. No, I will not calm down. I will not calm down.”
Sarkozy: “To be president of the republic, you have to be calm.”
Royal: “Not when there are injustices. There are angers that are perfectly healthy because they correspond to people’s suffering. There are angers I will have even when I am president of the republic.”
Sarkozy: “Madame Royal, would you allow me to say one word? ...I don’t know why the usually calm Madame Royal has lost her nerve.”
I support Royal in theory but I would feel like I'm in a tough spot if I was a French voter. During the debate, Sarkozy hammered his points with an often-bewildering array of facts and numbers while Royal couldn't respond but to say that Sarkozy was wrong, rarely specifiying how and drifting from the questions posed by the moderators; when pressed for precision, she fell back on vague promises of "we'll see how negociations go." Her propositions seem like they would only enhance the oppressive socialist structure (especially the 35-hour work week) that's already strangling France's economic development.
Sarkozy, on the other hand, appears to have some idea of what he wants to do, which carries with it some appeal when the country considers itself in the midst of a growing crisis. Royal failed to press on issues where Sarko is vulernable (such as immigration), and even though I don't really care for a lot of his policies. He seems vaguely self-obsessed and confident to the point of arrogant; however, I have to hand it to him: he stayed on point and remained calm throughout the debate.
My Verdict: Sarkozy led the debate from the one-hour mark to the conclusion; though he verged on bullying Royal, who withered and postured as the debate wore on—and then, most worrisome, lost her cool, he never came off as anything but confident in his politics, which he supported with facts, something Royal often failed to do.
French voters have a tough choice coming up this Sunday.