Thursday, May 3, 2012

France's presidential rivals trade insults in debate

bittermann-france-election-debate-00001915-story-top France's two presidential contenders continue to battle over the country's undecided voters Thursday, after sparring over the economy in their one head-to-head debate ahead of Sunday's run-off vote.

In a combative televised debate Wednesday night, President Nicolas Sarkozy and challenger Francois Hollande focused on the economy, social issues and immigration.

But despite the trading of personal insults, neither landed a killer blow, leaving both candidates keen to seize the advantage in the last two days of campaigning.

Each will be hoping to gain the endorsement of centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, expected to announce who he's backing later Thursday.

Sarkozy, who heads the center-right UMP party, holds a rally in the southeastern city of Toulon Thursday, while Hollande, of the center-left Socialist party, will address supporters in the southwestern city of Toulouse.

The economy and immigration have been at the heart of campaigning, with France struggling to overcome with low growth and 10% unemployment.

In one testy exchange Wednesday night, Hollande accused Sarkozy of cronyism.

"You appointed your close colleagues everywhere, in all the ministries and regional government. If I understand correctly, you appointed them everywhere," he said.

In response, Sarkozy, who is trailing in opinion polls, questioned his rival's grasp on the truth.

"Can I finish my phrase? What you are saying now is a lie. It is slander. You are nothing but a little slanderer," he said.

Accusations of dishonesty again came to the fore in another exchange.

"What is extraordinary about your answers is that whatever happens in France, you are happy, although the French are clearly not," Hollande said.

Sarkozy replied: "What you are saying is a lie. When you say I don't care about my responsibilities, that is a lie."

Hollande, who in campaigning has sought to paint Sarkozy as more interested in looking after a wealthy elite than the common people, stressed his own commitment to social justice.

"I will be the president who believes in justice, because we are living through a difficult crisis, which is hitting those who work the hardest, who have less money," Hollande said.

"I want justice to be the foundation of all the decisions that we make, so it's about fiscal, territorial, and social justice."

But the president accused Hollande of favoring union members over the general public interest.

"When you bring people together is when you are talking to the whole nation of France," Sarkozy said.

"I'm not talking to one party, I'm not talking to the left or one area in France. 'Bringing together' is to talk to all of those, even those who don't have your ideas. Of course there are people that will vote for you, but it's the ones that won't vote for you (too). I will talk to the people of France."

The two rivals have been competing to reach out to the 6.5 million voters who supported the third-place candidate in the first round of voting, the right-wing National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

In the April 22 balloting, Hollande received 28.6% of the vote, slightly ahead of Sarkozy's 27.2%. Le Pen received 18% of the vote.

Le Pen said Tuesday she would not back either candidate and would leave her voting slip blank on Sunday. She told supporters to vote "with your soul and your conscience."

Under French election rules, campaigning will end at midnight Friday. Voters go to the polls on Sunday.

If elected, Hollande would be France's first left-wing president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995. Sarkozy has been president since 2007.


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