François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy trade blows on TV as president fights for career

As they exchanged verbal blows, the two candidates often reduced the two presenters refereeing the debate to bystanders

Paris

The French presidential candidates fought like cats throughout a three- hour television debate last night, exchanging insults without landing a knockout blow.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, trailing in the polls before Sunday's second round vote, accused the Socialist challenger, François Hollande of "lying" – breaking the unwritten "parliamentary" rules of the debate.

At one point, after Mr Hollande accused him of appointing a string of cronies to judicial and state positions, a rattled Mr Sarkozy called him a "little spreader of calumnies". Mr Hollande fought back, accusing the President of being incapable of arguing his points without insulting his opponents. "The word lie is always in your mouth," he said. "That suggests perhaps that is the way you conduct your own policies."

President Sarkozy complained that Socialist politicians had compared him to collaborationist and fascist figures such as Marshal Pétain and General Franco and had compared his large open-air meeting in Paris on Tuesday to Adolf Hitler's Nuremberg rallies. "You're going to have trouble passing yourself off as a victim," retorted Mr Hollande. "Your friends have compared me to the whole bestiary, to every animal in the zoo... Are you asking us to believe you didn't inspire that?"

Mr Hollande's pugnacity seemed to take the President by surprise. The Socialist frontrunner is frequently criticised as too soft to stand up for himself – or his country. Political commentators said that his vigorous performance went some way towards answering that criticism.

As they exchanged verbal blows on their economic proposal, debt, deficits and immigration, the two candidates often reduced the two star television presenters refereeing the debate to bystanders. The President managed to trip up Mr Hollande a couple of times on his plans for controlling illegal immigration and the details of his proposal to hire 60,000 new teachers over five years. "No country in the developed world is proposing that we should start hiring more state employees," Mr Sarkozy said.

On the whole, the Socialist challenger gave a fluent and assured performance. Since Mr Hollande leads by six to eight points in the polls and is generally regarded as the poorer television performer, a score draw – even a bad-tempered one – suited him better than Mr Sarkozy.

Mr Sarkozy declared at one point that he would accept "no moral lessons" from the party of the disgraced former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Mr Hollande said that he and other Socialists had no inside knowledge on DSK's private life and asked the President whether he had his own sources of information.

Both sides claimed victory afterwards. The Socialists said that Mr Hollande came over as more presidential than the president. Mr Sarkozy's centre-right camp said Mr Hollande's aggressive approach had failed to disguise the vagueness of his proposals.

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