French election: An angry debate

It had been billed as a duel, and so it turned out. On the way into the TV studios Francois Hollande said he hoped for decency in the debate. President Sarkozy said you have to be determined but not extremely determined.

Within minutes such sentiments were forgotten. This was a long, scrappy political fight which left the impression that neither candidate liked each other.

The economy was the main battleground in an argument which lasted nearly three hours.

The Socialist candidate Francois Hollande told President Sarkozy: "You have ruined the French economy." When the President said he was "unfairly blamed", Mr Hollande said "it's never your fault... whatever happens you are always happy".

That prompted President Sarkozy to say "It's a lie. it's a lie."

Later he called Mr Hollande a "little slanderer".

President Sarkozy said to Mr Hollande: "You want less rich people. I want fewer poor people." His opponent retorted: "You just protect the privileged."

Mr Hollande went on to say: "We are coming out of five years when France was struck down, when France was divided."

"Saying that we offered gifts to the rich... is a lie," said the president. Mr Hollande laughed.

The president said that France needed to do more to cut spending and debts. He said his opponent's spending plans would send France's debt through the roof and hurt the rest of Europe.

They argued over the eurozone crisis. "Europe has got over it," said the president. "Europe has never got over it," said Mr Hollande.

There was some agreement over whether there should be special treatment for France's Muslim community. Mr Hollande said he firmly supported France's ban on face-covering veils and rejected separate menus in public cafeterias.

Neither candidate scored a decisive victory. The key difference was in style. President Sarkozy was the more aggressive, the more agitated, leaning forward as he pressed his argument.

Mr Hollande was the more relaxed of the two and remained calm throughout. Those in France who dislike their hyperactive president's style will not have been reassured. But the president will hope that he has sowed doubts about Mr Hollande's experience and his economic plans.

For Mr Sarkozy it may have been the last chance to turn the election around.