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Socialist is aggressive in presidential debate

Times Staff Writer

Presidential candidates Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy clashed Wednesday night in a televised debate seen as the last big round of the campaign, dueling vigorously about crime, the economy and the future of France.

The estimated 20 million viewers rivaled the size of an audience for a World Cup soccer game, reflecting widespread interest in the runoff election Sunday. It was the first presidential debate featuring a female contender and the first in more than 25 years in which incumbent President Jacques Chirac did not participate.

The pressure to perform was on Royal, the Socialist candidate, because she has consistently trailed the center-right Sarkozy by as much as eight percentage points in opinion polls. Royal rose to the challenge with a sustained attack on the front-runner. She peppered him with questions and criticism of the unpopular center-right government, in which he served as interior and economy minister.

The candidates appeared to trade personalities during the 2 1/2 -hour session.

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Although Royal projects a serene, maternal and tolerant image on the campaign trail, she seemed determined to display strength and authority to voters who doubt her credentials.

And Sarkozy, known as a more formidable and experienced speaker, took pains to restrain himself. He repeatedly expressed respect for his opponent, mindful that critics call him authoritarian and abrasive.

The result was a slugfest that often escaped the control of the two journalists serving as moderators. Royal charged quickly onto turf where Sarkozy has built his reputation: security. She blasted his record as interior minister, citing the recent rape of a policewoman leaving work, and promised if elected to ensure that policewomen are escorted home at night.

Sarkozy scoffed at the idea of assigning bodyguards to off-duty policewomen, causing Royal to snap that she saw nothing amusing about the issue.

But that was just a skirmish. The exchange of the evening came when Sarkozy promised to ensure the rights of disabled children to attend public schools. Royal, a former junior minister of education, raised her voice as she accused him of “immorality” and “lies,” alleging that his government had eliminated school programs for the disabled.

“Playing with the handicapped as you just did is really scandalous,” Royal declared. “This attains the peak of political immorality.”

As Royal hammered away, Sarkozy told her icily to calm down.

“To be president of the republic, you have to stay calm,” he said. To the moderators, he added: “I don’t know why Madame Royal, who is normally calm, has lost control of her nerves.”

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“I did not lose control of my nerves, I am angry,” Royal retorted. “When there is injustice, there can be healthy anger.”

“When you use words that wound, you divide people although it’s necessary to unite them,” Sarkozy said, in a reversal of his rivals’ charges that he is divisive.

The consequences of the verbal fireworks remain to be seen. Royal’s aggressiveness and energy may aid her bid in what is expected to be a narrow race. She made concerted appeals to women, describing the troubles of mothers who were denied pension benefits because they left a job to raise their children. And she occasionally rattled Sarkozy, not an easy feat.

“What struck me was the extreme toughness of the debate,” said Gerard Carreyou, an analyst on the LCI network. “I was struck by the extreme pugnacity of Segolene Royal throughout the debate.”

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Sarkozy, meanwhile, showed a greater command of facts and delivered more detailed arguments, analysts said. They also said the effect of Royal’s attacks on the Chirac government would be limited because voters know that as interior minister, Sarkozy fought bitterly with Chirac.

The debate was the only face-to-face encounter of the two charismatic candidates in their early 50s, which is youthful for French politics, and their contrasting visions of the future.

Royal advanced traditional Socialist themes of reinforcing the public sector and raising the minimum wage. She promised to make institutions more democratic with more referendums and consultation with citizen panels.

Sarkozy laid out a market-driven plan for cutting taxes, encouraging private employment and using attrition to trim public-sector jobs.

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rotella@latimes.com


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