President Sarkozy is locked in a TV debate right now, fighting to hold on to office. He's trailing his socialist rival Francois Hollande in the polls with four days to go to the final vote. Tonight's debate is really his last chance to claw back some support. From Paris, our European editor James Mates reports.
PARIS - French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a last-ditch appeal to far-right voters on Thursday after failing to land a knockout blow in a heated televised debate with Socialist rival Francois Hollande before Sunday's decisive runoff.
Hollande, ahead in opinion polls by six to 10 points, was calm and unflappable during the nearly three-hour debate on Wednesday while the conservative Sarkozy, struggling to catch up with the moderate social democrat, was often agitated and tense.
Commentators said the confrontation, watched by 17.8 million people out of an electorate of 44.5 million, was no game-changer and probably only reinforced voters' opinions in a contest that has been as much about style and personality as substance.
"It was a draw but as Mr Hollande started as favorite, he remains the favorite," wrote Francoise Fressoz in an editorial in Le Monde. "Mr Sarkozy did not manage to destabilize him, which was his objective from the start."
Television commentators said Sarkozy had performed "like a boxer" in Wednesday's debate and Hollande "like a judo fighter", using flashes of wit and interjections to unbalance his rival.
"Hollande presides over the debate," left-wing Liberation wrote on its front page, while the right-leaning Le Figaro, with a headline "High Tension", emphasized the bitterness of the exchanges. It noted that every euro zone leader to seek re-election since 2008 had lost, but said divisions in the French left and Hollande's outdated policies gave Sarkozy a chance.
Mehdi Fedouach / AFP - Getty Images
Socialist Party supporters applaud as they watch on TV the televised national debate between the two candidates for the 2012 French presidential election, France's Socialist Party (PS)'s Francois Hollande and France's incumbent president and Union for a Popular Movement (UMP)'s, Nicolas Sarkozy between the two rounds of the presidential election on May 2, 2012 at the Players bar in Paris. AFP PHOTO / MEHDI FEDOUACHMEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/GettyImages
Hollande, 57, was confident and relaxed in the early exchanges of Wednesday's contest, saying he aimed to be "the president of justice" and "the president of unity".
He said Sarkozy, also 57 and in office since 2007, had divided the French people and was using the global economic crisis as an excuse for broken promises. "With you it's very simple: it's never your fault," Hollande said.
Sarkozy, fighting for his political life, repeatedly accused his opponent of lying about economic figures and reeled off reams of statistics in an attempt to swamp his adversary.
Deriding Hollande's pledge to be a "normal president", the president said: "Your normality is not up to the challenge."
Sarkozy, being punished for rife unemployment and a brash manner, is the most unpopular president to run for re-election. He was the first in recent history to lose a first-round vote, with Hollande benefiting from the anti-incumbent sentiment that has swept 11 euro zone leaders from office since 2009.
The streets of Paris were unusually deserted with many people staying home to watch the debate, although some chose to follow the clash on television screens at their local cafe.
"It has been 50-50. There is no clear winner," said Jacques Dufoix, 36, a computer engineer, after watching the debate in a central Paris sports bar. "I don't think this is going to change the way anyone votes. People have already made up their minds."
Reuters and msnbc.com's Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report.
More world news from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- Blind China activist: Officials threatened to kill my wife
- Deadly suicide blast in Kabul after Obama leaves
- Catholic priest: I've been secretly married for a year
- New era as Aung San Suu Kyi joins Myanmar parliament
- Bold move as Syria leader makes time for chess
- N. Korea accused of jamming commercial flight signals
Follow us on Twitter: @msnbc_world