French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed during a TV debate on Tuesday to halve the number of immigrants and impose a minimum tax on profits of big listed companies as he sought to bolster support for his re-election bid in April.
Sarkozy, grilled by veteran Socialist Laurent Fabius and journalists for three hours on the primetime show, defended his record on tax reform, public finances, and unemployment - which rose on his watch as economic crisis battered the world.
The conservative leader, lagging behind Socialist challenger Francois Hollande in the polls, was also made to apologize for old gaffes and explain his personality traits in a lengthy section about awkward moments in his early presidency.
Sarkozy, said by critics to pander too much to the far right as he seeks to maximize support for the April 22 first round, said he would cut the number of immigrants to 100,000 a year from 180,000 and tighten up the rules on foreigners' access to French nationality and benefits.
The debate with Fabius - a former finance and prime minister who is destined for a top job if Hollande wins - comes as Sarkozy is struggling in opinion polls. Having gained a few points at the start of his campaign, Sarkozy slipped back last week as he suffered setbacks on the campaign trail.
Hollande, who launched his campaign months before Sarkozy, regained momentum by proposing a 75 percent tax rate on earnings above a million euros, a move 61 percent of French people would support, a poll by TNS Sofres and Mediaprism showed.
Quizzed about the economy, Sarkozy said that while Germany remained a model to be emulated, France had held up better than much of Europe in the crisis.
In a tense and barbed debate, Sarkozy accused his opponent of using artistic license when citing unemployment figures.
"If unemployment exploded in so many countries, was it my fault it rose in France or did something happen?" Sarkozy said. "If you didn't include temporary workers in jobless figures when you were finance minister, why would you do it now?"
In a long section about his personal style, Sarkozy said he regretted episodes such as feting his 2007 election victory in a swanky Paris nightspot. Asked about his personal failings, he listed them as being spontaneous, emotional and sentimental.
"When people freely insult me, I don't like it," he said, explaining why he had more than once snapped at members of the public. His biggest strength was his energy, he said.
It was Sarkozy's first political debate of the election campaign, following an able performance by Hollande at the end of January against Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.
Sarkozy, who is set to deliver his biggest campaign speech yet in the Paris suburbs on Sunday, said his first foreign trip if re-elected would be to visit his German counterpart in Berlin, after which he would go to the Middle East to discuss peace talk possibilities with Israeli and Palestinian officials.
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