The key moment in Wednesday's French presidential debate came when conservative frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy promised that all handicapped children in France could be integrated into regular schools. Segolene Royal, the Socialist hoping to become France's first female president, went ballistic. It was "scandalous," she yelled, and "the height of political immorality" for Sarkozy to dare advance such a proposition "with a tear in his eye." Overcome with anger, she added it was precisely the conservative government he has served in for the last five years that eliminated teaching positions she had created to implement such a policy.
It was as if she were determined to prove that, yes, women are hysterical. And he, meanwhile, seemed just as determined to proved that men are supremely rational. While she bristled and argued fiercely, Sarkozy showed an imperial calm. To mitigate his law-and-order image, he made a calculated effort to demonstrate compassion for the destitute and les misÃ©rables at every conceivable turn. Her hysteria lasted for three precious minutes that Sarkozy chivalrously offered to her at the end of the debate. Or was that just another cold calculation on his part?
Sarkozy remained impassive--almost apathetic--throughout. Maybe he needed a sleeping pill in the early hours of the morning and it hadn't yet worn off. But he was awake enough to hold his own in the skirmishes that punctuated the traditional two-hour right-left debate--a high-stakes affair with the final round of voting scheduled for Sunday.
He argued that the 35-hour maximum work week is counterproductive and vowed to "put France back to work." Royal called the 35-hour law "great social progress." She said she would submit the defeated European constitutional treaty to a new referendum; he said he would not. She thinks the French people should vote in a referendum on whether they want Turkey to join the E.U. Sarkozy said that wouldn't be necessary: unanimity is required for a new member state to enter the European Union, and under a Sarkozy presidency France would block Turkey's entrance. SÃ©golÃ¨ne was more hawkish on Iran, opposing Iran's access to any type of nuclear technology, even peaceful. Sarkozy, on his side, supported the idea of applying international sanctions to Iran to prevent its gaining nuclear weapons capability.
The two-hour broadcast on Wednesday was the last confrontation before the May 6 runoff. Even if the majority of pundits started by saying there was no clear winner, viewers seem to have made their mind up quite firmly: an Opinionway poll for Le Figaro, conducted by phone just after the broadcast, showed that 53 percent considered Sarkozy more convincing than Royal, 31 percent the reverse. The online bookmakers were even more lopsided: they now make Sarkozy a 6 to 1 favorite to be France's next president.