A crucial French presidential debate between frequently bad-tempered candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal failed to give either candidate a significant boost in the polls.
Neither candidate was able to claim a clear victory after the debate
Tempers ran high as right-winger Sarkozy and his Socialist rival Royal faced off across a white table in Wednesday's hour televised debate, which was watched by an estimated 20 million viewers and ran over two hours.
With the outcome of Sunday's runoff vote in play, most commentators called the debate a draw. Royal trailed by a slight margin going into the debate, and the numbers remained nearly unchanged Thursday morning, with Sarkozy holding a lead of 53.5 percent to Royal's 46.5 percent of the voters polled by Ipsos SA/Dell.
On Thursday, in the aftermath of the face-off, the rivals continued to trade barbs. Sarkozy repeated that he was "surprised by the degree of aggressiveness" shown by Royal during the debate, and accused her of being "intolerant."
"It is revealing of the reactions that can come from some quarters of the left who consider anyone who does not share their ideas as illegitimate," Sarkozy said in a French radio interview.
'Sarkozy is like a screaming child'
For her part, Royal told French radio that Sarkozy "did not dare" repeat during the debate some of the accusations he has directed at her during the campaign. She said he reminded her "of those children who kick and then cry out first to make believe that it was their playmate who hit first."
During the debate, long-held disagreements between the candidates repeatedly flared into ill-restrained hostility, with Royal launching a volley of attacks on Sarkozy's record in government, and Sarkozy trying -- at times successfully -- to bait Royal into losing her cool.
In the most fiery outburst, Royal charged Sarkozy with "political immorality" after he said that handicapped children should be guaranteed a place in ordinary schools.
Sarkozy has a slight lead in the polls
'You lose your temper easily, Madame'
"I am scandalized by what I have just heard," Royal said, accusing Sarkozy's government of dismantling Socialist Party education measures for the handicapped. "This is the height of political immorality."
Sarkozy, who remained calm during the attack, retorted: "I don't question your sincerity, don't question my morality ... You lose your temper very easily, Madame."
Earlier, Sarkozy repeated a pledge to cut the number of state workers -- prompting accusations from Royal that he would endanger public health and education services.
Debating employment strategies
Sarkozy said he would ensure full employment in France in five years by "freeing the forces of labor," and said the 35-hour working week -- introduced by the last Socialist government -- was killing employment.
"She (Royal) still thinks that you have to share out the work like pieces of a cake," Sarkozy said. "Not a single country in the world accepts this logic, which is a monumental mistake."
Royal lost her cool, briefly
Royal countered with a promise to create 500,000 jobs for younger people, funded from existing training and unemployment budgets.
She questioned Sarkozy's citation of an economic think-tank that said his program would benefit the economy more than Royal's. This prompted Sarkozy to ask: "Why do you treat anyone who is not of your opinion with irony, even with contempt?"
Tight race; no clear winner
On several occasions, Royal responded to Sarkozy's proposals by saying: "What a pity you didn't do that during your five years in government."
The encounter was expected to be decisive in determining the choice of millions of uncommitted voters on Sunday. Nearly 7 million people chose defeated centrist Francois Bayrou in the first round on April 22, and the second-round campaign has focused on capturing his electorate.
Analysts said neither candidate had scored a decisive victory.
"There were two winners -- with perhaps a slight advantage to Sarkozy. Neither fell into the trap prepared by the other. Sarkozy did not lose his temper and Royal did not come across as
light-weight or incompetent," said Christophe Barbier, editor of l'Express magazine.
'Breathtaking' or 'aggressive'?
Former Socialist minister Jack Lang said, "Segolene Royal was breathtaking from start to finish. With real panache, she constantly set the agenda. She obviously appeared as the president of France."
French media is consumed with a final campaign push
But Jacques Myard, a deputy from Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, said Royal "was in a state of near-permanent aggressiveness. Opposite her, Nicolas Sarkozy was convincing, able to calmly spell out his arguments without sounding like he was reading from a book."
Campaigning for the second round ends on Friday at midnight. On Thursday the two candidates hold their last rallies, Royal in the northern city of Lille and Sarkozy in Montpellier in the south.
In the first round of voting, Sarkozy got 31.2 percent of the vote and Royal 25.9 percent. Far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen received 10.4 percent. On Tuesday Le Pen urged his 3.8 million voters not to vote for Sarkozy or Royal. Bayrou has not issued an endorsement for either candidate.