President Nicolas Sarkozy was widely judged yesterday to have "lost" his bad-tempered television debate with his Socialist challenger, François Hollande, just before the final round of the presidential election.
Some political analysts said that the frontrunning Mr Hollande "won" the debate simply because he did not lose it. Others said that the Socialist challenger had been more serene and persuasive and had come out on top in his sometimes violent verbal exchanges with Mr Sarkozy.
In an opinion poll by IFOP for Paris Match, 42 per cent of voters said that Mr Hollande had been the "more convincing" performer, compared to 34 per cent for the President.
There was a further, serious setback last night for Mr Sarkozy, who trails Mr Hollande by five to eight points in polls before 45,000,000 French voters choose their next president on Sunday.
The centrist leader, François Bayrou, who scored 9 per cent in the 10-candidate, first round on 22 April, announced that he would vote for Mr Hollande on Sunday. He accused his former ministerial colleague, Mr Sarkozy, of "trampling the values of Gaullism and the French Republic" in his "headlong race" after far-right votes in recent days.
Mr Bayrou said that he was giving no advice to his followers but he could not abstain at such a "dangerous" moment for France and Europe. He would therefore vote for Mr Hollande as a "personal decision".
By campaigning on far-right themes such as immigration and the alleged threat to French identity from Islam, Mr Bayrou said, President Sarkozy had "started a process" which could lead to "conflict between Frenchmen and Frenchmen".
Thirty parliamentarians and local politicians from Mr Bayrou's party, Le Mouvement Democrate, have also announced that they are voting for Mr Hollande. They said that Sarkozy's enthusiastic pursuit of far- right themes and voters had "disfigured France".
Mr Sarkozy, who trailed Mr Hollande 28.6 per cent to 27.06 per cent in the first round, needs a large transfer of both centrist and far-right votes to win on Sunday. The Socialist candidate is assured of most of the total of 44 per cent who voted for left-wing and green candidates on 22 April. He is predicted by opinion polls to take one in three centrist votes and one in five of the 17.9 per cent who voted National Front.
The nearly three-hour television debate on Wednesday night attracted, at its peak, 17,800,000 viewers – one in three of French voters. Mr Sarkozy's camp had billed the encounter as the "moment of truth" when the President would prove that he was the "authentic" man of the people and expose the "inexperience" of Mr Hollande, who has never held a ministerial job.
The President attacked from the first minute but rapidly found himself on the defensive as Mr Hollande eloquently criticised his economic record and his alleged favour- itism towards cronies and the rich. President Sarkozy repeatedly accused the Socialist candidate of "lying". He also called Mr Hollande a "demagogue" and a "little slanderer" and "Pontius Pilate".
Mr Hollande calmly responded at one point: "There you go again. That word [liar] seems to be a leitmotiv which is meant to hurt me but in your mouth it seems like a habit."
The aggressive tone of the debate may have angered undecided voters who wanted to hear solutions to their problems rather than a quarrel in their own living room. Mr Hollande laid to rest suggestions that he was "soft" but he scarcely expanded on his own, often vague, economic proposals and was caught out by the President on a couple of occasions. "It was a draw but Mr Hollande started as favourite, so he remains the favourite," the respected political commentator, François Fressoz wrote in Le Monde. Even the virulently pro-Sarkozy Le Figaro did not claim a victory for its champion.
Mr Sarkozy's best moment came on one of his favourite themes – immigration. He managed to expose contradictory remarks by Mr Hollande on whether he would maintain detention centres for illegal migrants.