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Struggling Sarkozy pins re-election hopes on French TV duel

Following massive May Day rallies, the game has been stepped up by French presidential candidates as President Nicolas Sarkozy and rival Francois Hollande are set for a face-off in a televised debate Wednesday

AFP , Wednesday 2 May 2012
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France's President and UMP party candidate for his re-election in the 2012 French presidential elections, Nicolas Sarkozy arrives to deliver his speech at Trocadero square in Paris, Tuesday (Photo: Reuters)
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Nicolas Sarkozy makes a last-ditch bid Wednesday to turn the tide against Socialist Francois Hollande when they go head to head in the French presidential election's one and only television debate.

The duel comes a day after Sarkozy staged a huge rally to rival France's traditional May Day show of force by the left and after National Front leader Marine Le Pen scornfully rejected his bid to woo her far-right supporters.

The president is expected to use the debate to portray his front-running rival as a dangerous left-winger whose tax-and-spend policies signal a return to 1970s socialism that will doom the already struggling French economy.

Sarkozy is generally seen as a better debater than Hollande but few expect him to be able to reverse the opinion polls that forecast the Socialist will clinch Sunday's second round vote by around 54 percent to his 46.

Hollande will speak first in the debate to be broadcast live by several channels at 1900 GMT and which has been meticulously prepared—even down to the temperature of the studio—by media advisors of both candidates.

Hollande has received advice from his former partner and mother of his four children, Segolene Royal, who took on Sarkozy in 2007 when she was the Socialist candidate, in an election her right-wing opponent went on to win.

In a television interview Monday, she suggested he "avoid falling into one-upmanship", make sure he "match him blow for blow", and stay on alert in the hours after the debate in order to manage the "media interpretation".

On Tuesday, Sarkozy addressed a cheering crowd of tens of thousands in Paris, as the French left and trade union movements, which back Hollande, marched through the Left Bank towards a huge rally at Bastille.

"I say this to the unions. Put down the red flag and serve France!" he declared, as supporters waved France's tricolour banner.

Having spent the week since the first-round vote attempting to recruit far-right sympathisers from Marine Le Pen's anti-immigrant, anti-EU camp, Sarkozy rounded on the left, accusing the unions of failing ordinary workers.

His campaign claimed 200,000 had turned out in bright spring sunshine to hear him attempt to don the nationalist mantle of General Charles de Gaulle and, while this figure was impossible to verify, the crowd was packed tight.

Promising a "new French model" based on hard work and entrepreneurship, he vowed to abolish collective bargaining and build an economy where "success will no longer be regarded with suspicion but as an example".

The crowd chanted "We're going to win! We're going to win!", but if Sarkozy does pull it off it will be despite stagnant growth, high unemployment and his having trailed Hollande in polls for more than six months.

Hollande, campaigning outside Paris, said he would seek to be a successor to France's last Socialist president Francois Mitterrand and accused Sarkozy of trying to divide France with his attacks on trade unions.

"When there are four million unemployed, when joblessness has increased by more than a million, who defends the value of work and who is ruining it?" he asked, hailing unions and promising growth and a higher minimum wage.

Hollande's programme also includes the creation of 60,000 teaching jobs and bringing the minimum retirement age back to 60 from 62.

Sarkozy's best hope of turning around the polls would be to recruit most of Le Pen's voters from the first round, when she won a record 18 percent on a ticket of protectionism, leaving the European Union and closing the borders.

But Le Pen, hopeful that a Sarkozy loss would shatter the right and help the National Front make gains in June's legislative elections, scorned his overture in the third big rally in Paris on Tuesday.

"Who between Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy will impose the austerity plan in the most servile way? Who will submit the best to the instructions of the IMF, the ECB or the European Commission?" she asked ironically.

Le Pen reminded her supporters that they are free to vote as they choose on Sunday, but said that she would cast a blank ballot so as not to endorse either candidate and strongly suggested that they should do the same.

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