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France's presidential rivals trade insults in debate

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 1:49 PM EDT, Thu May 3, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Francois Bayrou says he's backing Hollande, tells supporters to vote with their conscience
  • Nicolas Sarkozy says his rival will raise taxes and create more debt
  • Francois Hollande says the president has caused divisions and helped the elite
  • The pair have two days of campaigning left before French voters go to the polls Sunday

Paris (CNN) -- France's two presidential contenders continued to battle over the country's undecided voters Thursday, after sparring over the economy in their one head-to-head debate ahead of Sunday's runoff vote.

In a combative televised debate Wednesday night, President Nicolas Sarkozy and challenger Francois Hollande focused on the economy, social issues and immigration.

But despite the trading of personal insults, neither landed a killer blow, leaving both candidates keen to seize the advantage in the last two days of campaigning.

Centrist candidate Francois Bayrou announced Thursday that he would vote for Hollande, but urged his supporters to vote with their conscience.

Both candidates hope to pick up a share of the 9% of votes that went to Bayrou in the first round.

Can Sarkozy woo far-right voters?

Sarkozy, of the center-right UMP party, was to hold a rally in the southeastern city of Toulon Thursday, while Hollande, of the center-left Socialist party, addressed supporters in the southwestern city of Toulouse.

The economy and immigration have been at the heart of campaigning, with France struggling to overcome with low growth and 10% unemployment.

In his opening salvo Wednesday night, Hollande said he would be the president of unity, justice and recovery.

"I want to unite all the French. ... It is in this way that we will recover our confidence," he said.

Sarkozy's response was to highlight the imminent danger in which he sees the country. "We are not in a crisis, but among many crises," he said.

In a direct appeal to the country's undecided voters, he then said: "Unity is when we talk to the people of France, not just to the left."

He also accused Hollande of favoring union members over the general public interest, and said with his opponent as president there would be "more taxes and more debt."

Hollande in turn attacked Sarkozy on divisions in the country, saying he has split the population.

In one of several testy exchanges, he also accused Sarkozy of cronyism.

"You appointed your close colleagues everywhere, in all the ministries and regional government. If I understand correctly, you appointed them everywhere," he said.

In response, Sarkozy, who is trailing in opinion polls, questioned his rival's grasp on the truth.

"Can I finish my sentence? What you are saying now is a lie. It is slander. You are nothing but a little slanderer," he said.

Accusations of dishonesty again came to the fore in another exchange.

"What is extraordinary about your answers is that whatever happens in France, you are happy, although the French are clearly not," Hollande said.

"What you are saying is a lie," Sarkozy responded. "When you say I don't care about my responsibilities, that is a lie."

Hollande, who in campaigning has sought to paint Sarkozy as more interested in looking after a wealthy elite than the common people, stressed his own commitment to social justice.

"I will be the president who believes in justice, because we are living through a difficult crisis, which is hitting those who work the hardest, who have less money," Hollande said. "I want justice to be the foundation of all the decisions that we make."

On immigration, Sarkozy repeated his position that France has too many immigrants to be able to provide the necessary jobs and housing.

"France is an open country; I know myself where I am from. But we have welcomed in too many people, we have to reduce the number of those that we allow in, not because we do not love them," he said.

He said France has always had very generous social benefits but immigration should be halved.

Hollande agreed that economic immigration should limited, but was quick to say that Sarkozy is responsible for higher rates of immigration to France over the past 10 years, as interior minister for five years before becoming president.

The two rivals have been competing to reach out to the 6.5 million voters who supported the third-place candidate in the first round of voting, the right-wing National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

In the April 22 balloting, Hollande received 28.6% of the vote, slightly ahead of Sarkozy's 27.2%. Le Pen, who has called for sharply curbing immigration, received 18% of the vote.

Speaking to CNN affiliate BFM-TV Thursday morning, Marine Le Pen said: "I got the impression that (Hollande) played his role as expected -- but of course you know perfectly well my fundamental opinions on socialism, and my total disagreement with it."

She added, "Nicolas Sarkozy was not clear in his strategy. We see that he has a strategy that is quite varied ... from day to day. We don't know any more what his position is."

Le Pen said Tuesday she would not back either candidate and would leave her voting slip blank on Sunday. She told supporters to vote "with your soul and your conscience."

Socialist party leader Martine Aubry praised Hollande's performance in the debate.

"He had the stature, he stayed on course, he knew where he was going, he held true to his values," she told French network TF1. "He put morality in the center of everything ... justice at the heart of France, and bringing together all of the French people."

Jean-Francois Cope, of the UMP party, was equally appreciative of Sarkozy's performance.

The debate exposed the rivals' very different characters, he told TF1, allowing voters to see "on one side, Nicolas Sarkozy, because of his maturity, his experience, of the competence of someone who for five years has carried on his shoulders and guided our country through a period of crisis, and Francois Hollande on the other side, hesitant, and naturally -- same as anyone who has difficulty with the subject -- arrogant."

Wednesday's debate was the only head-to-head encounter for the two rivals.

Paris voter Dominique Templier, 57, said she had already decided whom to back -- and the debate didn't change her mind.

"They both stood their ground and I didn't hear anything new, and I don't have the feeling that it did much for those who are still making their minds up about Sunday's vote," she said.

Olivier Poulizac, 26, said he found the discussion of the economy unenlightening because it lacked depth.

"I had the impression that both of them were lying, so it's difficult to decide," he said. "I don't think there was a real winner in the debate and I don't think it's changed much for those who are still undecided."

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who received about 11% in the first round, will hold a rally in Paris Friday. He has already urged his supporters to back Hollande.

Under French election rules, campaigning will end at midnight Friday. Voters go to the polls Sunday.

If elected, Hollande would be France's first left-wing president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995. Sarkozy has been president since 2007.

CNN's Saskya Vandoorne, Anna Prichard, Rachel Ramsay, Basil Yousuf and Laura Smith-Spark contributed to this report.

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