THIS was not a man who debated like a caramel pudding. For weeks, Nicolas Sarkozy’s people have been predicting that François Hollande, who once earned the nickname “Flanby” within his own party in reference to a wobbly dessert popular in France, would “self-destruct” when put face-to-face with the combative president.
It didn’t happen. During nearly three hours of live televised debate last night, covering wonkish detail on everything from European debt mutualisation to nuclear reactors, Mr Hollande kept his calm and held his own. This is unlikely to sway voters who are unconvinced by his arguments. But it did undermine the judgment that he does not have what it takes to be president.
With the two moderators sitting there mutely like table decorations, the candidates traded insults as well as statistics. Mr Sarkozy accused Mr Hollande of not sanctioning his Socialist friends who had compared the president to Pétain or Franco. Mr Hollande retorted that Mr Sarkozy’s camp had likened him to “beasts” and “animals in the zoo”.
Mr Sarkozy repeatedly accused Mr Hollande of “lying” and “slander”. Mr Hollande punched back with: “You are incapable of holding an argument without being unpleasant.” With reference to Mr Hollande’s effort to campaign as a “normal” would-be president, Mr Sarkozy declared: “Your normality does not measure up to what is at stake.”
On economic policy, Mr Sarkozy put in a feisty performance, and did a good job of exposing the contradictions in Mr Hollande’s programme. At one point, for example, the Socialist candidate declared that France had lost competitiveness to Germany, which he said now performs better “in every domain”. In that case, asked Mr Sarkozy, why do you embrace policies, such as the 35-hour working week, which run against everything Germany has done to reform its economy over the past ten years?
But even for a skilled debater like Mr Sarkozy this was not quite enough. His best catchphrases were batted back. “You want fewer rich people; I want fewer poor!” declared Mr Sarkozy. Without missing a beat, Mr Hollande replied: “And there are more poor people, and the rich have got richer!”
Mr Sarkozy’s real difficulty was that Mr Hollande kept turning the debate back to the incumbent’s own record. It was missing the point, he said, to declare that France was doing less badly than Spain or Italy: unemployment and debt have soared on Mr Sarkozy’s watch. “With you,” snapped Mr Hollande, “it’s very simple: it’s never your fault.”
For a voter who doesn’t share Mr Hollande’s logic, his performance last night won’t have made any difference. What it did, though, is show him to be more solid, and have a firmer grasp of detail and a tougher temperament than the image that even his own friends were once happy to spread—before he started to look like a winner.
There was no single killer strike, nor gaffe, last night; both contesters played hardball, and for once dealt with the issues. But my view is that, for Mr Sarkozy, this will not be enough. As Christophe Barbier, editor of L’Express magazine noted last night, he needed to dominate his opponent, not just to match him. And, on that score, he did not succeed.