French Presidential Rivals Debate

By JOHN LEICESTER
The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 2, 2007; 8:50 PM

PARIS -- For more than two hours, France's presidential front-runner needled his challenger during a debate Wednesday _ a little sarcasm here, a comment about her partner there _ all wrapped in a veneer of chivalry and always addressing her as "Madame."

Finally, Segolene Royal snapped. The woman seeking to become France's first female president erupted in anger toward the end of the prime-time duel with conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.

It was surprising _ and potentially damaging _ that Royal, not Sarkozy, proved quick to anger. During their bitter election campaign, the Socialist has sought to portray her conservative rival as too unstable, too brutal, to lead the nuclear-armed nation.

In front of millions of television viewers, Sarkozy turned the tables. Royal got furious when he started talking about handicapped children, saying he was "playing" with the issue. "I am very angry," she said.

"You become unhinged very easily, Madame," said Sarkozy. "To be president of the republic, one must be calm. ... I don't know why Mrs. Royal, who's usually calm, has lost her calm."

On policy, the first and last debate between the two candidates before Sunday's runoff election produced no major surprises. They disagreed on how to get France's sluggish economy working again, on whether Turkey should join the European Union, on how to safeguard French pensions and on whether taxes should be cut.

Royal, who is behind in polls and needed to score points, immediately went on the offensive, criticizing Sarkozy's record as a minister in President Jacques Chirac's government before he became a candidate for the presidency.

Sarkozy, leading in the polls and looking to get through the debate unscathed, did not rise to Royal's baiting, even after she repeatedly interrupted him.

"Will you let me finish?" he asked at one point.

"No," said Royal.

"Ah," replied Sarkozy.

An immediate point of contention was France's 35-hour work week _ a landmark reform for Socialists, but decried by business leaders as a crippling brake on companies.


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