Europe

Sarkozy: France election too close to call

Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo: 2 May 2012
Image caption The two candidates traded accusations in a hot-tempered debate

French President Nicolas Sarkozy believes Sunday's presidential election run-off against Francois Hollande will be decided by the tightest margin.

The two rivals took part in a heated debate on Wednesday night, watched by an estimated 17.9 million people.

Mr Sarkozy said on Thursday that no election had ever been so "undecided".

Mr Hollande, who leads in the polls, told French radio that the final days of the campaign and the voter turnout could both affect the result.

The two men are both attending final mass rallies on friendly territory: Mr Hollande in the south-western city of Toulouse and Mr Sarkozy in the southern port of Toulon.

Each man has stepped up his appeals to voters who backed National Front leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Francois Bayrou in the first round.

Ms Le Pen, who attracted 6.4 million voters, said on Thursday that the election was over as Mr Sarkozy was "beaten a long time ago".

Mr Bayrou, who attracted almost 9% of the first-round vote, is set to announce shortly whom, if anyone, he favours in the second round.

'It's a lie'

During Wednesday's debate, the two candidates traded accusations, with the president calling Mr Hollande a "little slanderer", while his rival said Mr Sarkozy had shirked responsibility.

The programme, broadcast on TF1 and France 2, was also carried on four other smaller channels, and lasted two hours and 50 minutes, a record for a French election debate.

But the audience was slightly smaller than the 20 million people who watched the event five years before.

Mr Sarkozy defended his record and said he had kept France out of recession while Mr Hollande said France was going through a "serious crisis" and was struggling with slow growth.

The BBC's Gavin Hewitt says it was a long, bad-tempered debate that left the impression that neither candidate liked each other. But French media suggested that neither candidate had landed a knock-out blow.

Mr Hollande accused President Sarkozy of "ruining the French economy", prompting his rival to say he had been unfairly blamed.

"It's never your fault," Mr Hollande responded, to which Mr Sarkozy said: "It's a lie, it's a lie!"

'Most vulnerable'

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionBoth candidates accused each other of lying - Courtesy TF1

Much of the debate focused on the economy with Mr Sarkozy pointing to France's avoidance of recession since 2009, in contrast with many other Western economies. He rounded on Mr Hollande's proposal to create 60,000 education posts, insisting that France had to cut spending and debts.

Attacking Mr Hollande's promise to be a "normal" president, he said "your normality is not up to the challenge".

The rivals attacked each other's policies on immigration. Mr Hollande said he supported France's ban on face-covering veils and would not allow separate hours in swimming pools for men and women.

The president criticised his challenger for backing the right for non-EU foreigners to vote in local elections.

Returning to the subject during a radio interview on Thursday, Mr Sarkozy said he had changed his own mind on the issue because of community tensions. He also repeated a phrase from the election debate, asserting that he wanted an "Islam of France, not an Islam in France".

'Unknowns'

Speaking to France Inter radio on Thursday morning, Mr Hollande said there were "still some unknowns" that could affect Sunday's vote, namely the turnout and "the impact of these final days of the campaign".

"I'm fully aware that nothing is over, nothing has been won," he said.

Asked on RTL radio whether he had been surprised by Mr Hollande's combative approach during the debate, Mr Sarkozy said: "Don't think that I felt Mr Hollande was just gentle and kind".

The outgoing president said he thought that the "result is open: never will an election have been so undecided." He also pointed to the enormous crowd that attended his 1 May rally at the Trocadero near the Eiffel Tower.

"I think that we can, that we will win," he said.

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