That’s what I call a debate. None of the sterility of the US Presidential debates, or the UK’s first leadership debates back in 2010. This was two men going at each other for three straight hours, face to face at a table with a happy absence of TV moderators inserting themselves into the discussion. Nothing was off-limits, nothing was left unsaid. “You’re lying” said Sarkozy, repeatedly. “That word comes rather easily to you” hit back Hollande. Red-blooded stuff.
The tone had been set during the opening statements: Sarkozy had barely got started when Hollande came in with a “that’s the difference between us”. Clearly this was going to be a debate without rules.
There were two moderators, one from each of the TV channels hosting the event, which was probably two more than the occasion demanded. Neither said much, except every now and again to move the bickering couple onto a new area of disagreement. But there was something rather refreshing about the debate being about the two candidates rather than the TV personalities. If the voters wanted to see what these two men were really like, who was the sharper debater or the quicker to anger, it was there for all to see
“Un échange musclé”, the commentators called it this morning, and they weren’t exaggerating. “You are a little slanderer,” said the President in one of his less presidential moments. “You are making unpleasant assumptions about Muslims,” came back the challenger, as he tried to undermine Sarkozy’s coded appeals to those who voted for the far-right Front National.
But who won? In terms of sheer force of argument Sarkozy probably edged it. But Hollande achieved what he had to, which was to look presidential and avoid disaster. His economic plans came under intense scrutiny, as did his lack of experience (Hollande has never held any ministerial or government post), but against a man who is known as a formidable debater, he more than held his own.
There are no instant polls, as there are in the America or the UK, no figures we can point to to show what the enormous TV audience of 20 million made of it. There will be new polls tomorrow morning that will take in the debate effect, but they will be the last of the campaign. And anyway, it’s too late. There is no second debate, no second chance. Both candidates have a couple more rallies today and tomorrow before the legally enforced silence of Saturday, but nothing more will change. “Le face-a-face décisif” they called in this morning, and it probably was. We just don’t yet know quite how.