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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 May 2007, 22:56 GMT 23:56 UK
French rivals clash in TV debate
Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal
Neither candidate delivered a knock-out blow

The two candidates vying to be French president have gone head-to-head in a highly anticipated TV debate.

Conservative frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal clashed over employment, the economy, the environment and law and order.

The only debate of the campaign was a heated confrontation, and continued beyond the expected two-hour duration.

The encounter was seen as a decisive battle in swaying undecided voters ahead of Sunday's second-round vote.

Mr Sarkozy won 31.2% and Ms Royal won 25.9% in the 22 April poll.

On the attack

The face-off was screened by France's two biggest TV channels and watched by an estimated 20 million people.

Ms Royal criticised Mr Sarkozy's record in government during the debate, particularly on crime and security - Mr Sarkozy's traditional forte.

I don't think the French choose a president on the lone impression that they'll have after a two-hour debate
Nicolas Sarkozy

"In 2002, Mr Sarkozy, you talked about zero tolerance, but today you can see that the French are very worried about the rise in violence and aggression in French society," she said.

The former interior minister defended himself, saying the figures showed violent crime had fallen.

The most heated exchange came during the second half of the debate as the contenders discussed school places for children with disabilities.

Ms Royal accused Mr Sarkozy of "political immorality" for dismantling socialist measures on the issue.

Mr Sarkozy attacked his opponent for losing her temper - a criticism often levelled at Mr Sarkozy himself.

The rivals also debated public sector reform and clashed over employment. Mr Sarkozy said the 35-hour week, which was brought in by the socialists, had been a disaster for the economy. He said France needed to work more.

Pie chart of results

"She [Royal] still thinks that you have to share out the work like pieces of a cake," Mr Sarkozy said. "Not a single country in the world accepts this logic, which is a monumental mistake".

He also criticised Ms Royal's pension policy as vague.

Despite the clashes, neither candidate appeared to score a decisive blow, says the BBC's Alasdair Sandford in Paris.

They will be looking keenly at the opinion polls in the next few days to see whether they made the impact they were hoping for, our correspondent says.

Mr Sarkozy and Ms Royal are hoping to win votes from the 18% of voters who backed the third-placed candidate, centrist Francois Bayrou, as well as those who supported far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen.

'Decisive' moment

Former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who created the put-down "You don't have a monopoly of the heart" in the 1974 presidential election debate with his rival Francois Mitterrand, says that debate helped him win the election.

He predicts that the Sarkozy-Royal showdown will be "decisive".

But other commentators say more than 80% of French people have already decided how they are going to vote.

The last head-to-head presidential-race debate - Jacques Chirac versus Socialist Lionel Jospin in 1995 - drew 17 million viewers.

Mr Chirac won the first of his two terms that year. In 2002, he refused to debate with Mr Le Pen.


VOTE RESULTS
Who do you think won the debate?
Segolene Royal
 46.70% 
Nicolas Sarkozy
 35.15% 
Neither
 18.15% 
15174 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
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