French presidential candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal faced off in a two-and-a-half hour debate this afternoon (our time). This was real debate, in which the moderators threw out topics and let the candidates have at each other. This meant that there was no place to run and no place to hide.
I wasn’t able to watch the encounter, but a source close to me did. My source, who sometimes votes Socialist but favors Sarkozy in this race, saw Sarkozy as the clear winner.
According to my source, the debate proceeded along the lines of the campaign — Royal making lots of promises; Sarkozy declining to do so and wondering where the money to pay for Royal’s programs would come from. Sarkozy also argued for keeping tax rates under 50 percent (which makes him a “right-winger” in France), relief from the short 35 hour work week imposed by French law, and adjustments to the French retirement system to try to make it solvent.
All of this was as expected. But my source found that Sarkozy had better command of the issues and, in most cases, the facts. Moreover, Royal lost her composure at one point, and was nearly shouting at Sarkozy, who had to tell her to calm down. Royal responded, in a strained tone, that she would not calm down. Royal also appeared less decisive than her rival at times. Sarkozy was clear that he doesn’t want Turkey in the EU; Royal didn’t seem to have a position. Sarkozy, in short, came off as more presidential than Royal, as he has in my judgment throughout the campaign.
This account, which is confirmed in essence by the Washington Post, is bad news for Royal. The perception that she’s a lightweight has caused many centrists (like my source) and even some firm Socialists to have major reservations about her fitness to lead France. If the debate confirmed these perceptions, while also showing her to have less “cool” than Sarkozy, that could well be fatal. Moreover, a poll taken shortly before the debate showed Sarkozy with a seven percentage point lead, suggesting that even a “draw” wouldn’t have served Royal’s purposes.
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