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Inside Politics

Sparks fly in fierce Sarkozy, Royal TV debate

Story Highlights

NEW: Ill-tempered debate especially heated over policy of 35-hour working week
NEW: Live debate was expected to be watched by nearly half of France's voters
• Debate seen as crucial platform in a personality-driven election
• Sarkozy's temper thought an issue; he didn't want to seem too aggressive
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PARIS, France (CNN) -- Right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist rival Segolene Royal staged an often bad tempered televised debate Wednesday that analysts say could have a crucial effect on France's presidential vote.

Royal forced Sarkozy onto the defensive during the debate on Wednesday, attacking his record in office and accusing him of political immorality.

Sarkozy hit back, questioning whether she could handle the pressures of the presidency.

CNN's Jim Bittermann said neither contender appeared to have landed a knockout blow just four days before their run-off election.

"It was a very tense standoff between these two. The two moderators decided to break the glacial atmosphere by asking how the two candidates were feeling. Royal said 'just fine thank you,' and Sarkozy went on about how important the debate was," Bittermann said.

"Things really got heated about an hour and 45 minutes into the debate over Sarkozy's suggestion that handicapped children in schools should have more help. Royal said that was the height of political immorality. She said Sarkozy had been part of governments that had been constantly against the needs of the disabled."

Sarkozy, who remained calm, replied: "I don't question your sincerity, don't question my morality ... You lose your temper very easily."

Earlier Sarkozy repeated a pledge to cut the number of state workers -- prompting accusations from Royal that he would endanger public health and education services.

Sarkozy said he would ensure full employment in France in five years by "freeing the forces of labor", and said the 35-hour working week -- introduced by the last socialist government -- was killing employment.

"She (Royal) still thinks that you have to share out the work like pieces of a cake. Not a single country in the world accepts this logic, which is a monumental mistake," he said.

Royal countered with a promise to create 500,000 youth jobs, funded from existing training and unemployment budgets.

An estimated 20 million viewers were engrossed by the two-and-a-half hours of exchanges on the reasons and cures for France's economic and social problems.

"The commentators were this morning looking at the mannerisms of the candidates. Royal was seen crossing and uncrossing her hands, suggesting she was nervous. Sarkozy wasn't looking straight at her and he was playing to the two commentators," Bittermann said.

"There's a lot of over-analysis going on in the press this morning as people decide who won and who lost. Both sides played up the other sides' weaknesses.

"Sarkozy went on the attack about the vague and general language Segolene Royal sometimes uses. She was on the attack over Sarkozy's track record and that of the government he's been part of and that's something he had a difficult time handling."

An opinion poll published late on Wednesday put support for Sarkozy at 53.5 percent and Royal on 46.5 percent, with 86 percent of voters saying they would not change their minds ahead of the May 6 run off.

Royal, aiming to be France's first woman president with a combination of left-wing economic policies and traditional social values, is seen as more sympathetic to everyday concerns but uncertain when it comes to policy detail.


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