PARIS - France’s presidential race hit a dramatic pitch Wednesday in the only face-to-face debate between President Nicolas Sarkozy and front-running challenger Francois Hollande - a verbal slugfest that broke little new ground on substance but exposed big differences in style.
Sarkozy, struggling to keep his job, came out slugging, assailing Socialist Hollande’s plans to raise taxes and boost spending, repeatedly accusing him of lying. The Socialist Hollande held his own in a fight that many expected would be dominated by the sharp-tongued Sarkozy.
Sarkozy, a US-friendly conservative who linked up with Germany’s Angela Merkel to try to get Europe’s finances in order, faces an uphill battle in Sunday’s balloting: He has not led Hollande in a single poll this year.
The debate had shaped up as Sarkozy’s last stand, and last chance to draw blood against Hollande, who has been methodical in an almost picture-perfect campaign to avoid gaffes and erase any doubt about his ability to lead a nuclear-armed nation with a permanent UN Security Council seat.
“It’s a lie! It’s a lie!’’ Sarkozy asserted in one heated exchange on economic policies. The Socialist contender, meanwhile, forcefully denied some of Sarkozy’s claims, insisting, “I never said that.’’
The campaign has largely focused on domestic issues such as the weak economy, immigration, and integration of French Muslims. Yet the outcome is considered crucial to the rest of Europe as well because France is a major economic engine as the eurozone tries to climb out of a debt crisis.
Sarkozy says France needs to cut spending and debts, while Hollande favors government-funded stimulus programs.
Sarkozy lashed at out at his critics, especially regarding his handling of the economy, while noting Hollande’s lack of government experience.
Hollande called for national unity and social justice. Sarkozy said he is being unfairly blamed for France’s economic problems after years of crisis, and insisted he is not “the only guilty one.’’
“Mr. Sarkozy, you would have a hard time passing for a victim,’’ Hollande riposted. “It’s never your fault. You always have a scapegoat. ‘It’s not me, it’s the crisis that hit me.’ ’’
Sarkozy said Hollande’s economic plans would send France’s debt through the roof.
Hollande criticized tax reforms under Sarkozy seen by leftists as too friendly to the rich. “We are coming out of five years where France was struck down, where France was divided,’’ Hollande said.
Sarkozy countered, “Saying that we offered gifts to the rich . . . is slander. It’s a lie.’’
At this, Hollande laughed.
Both the Socialists and conservatives have sought ways to attract voters who during the first round cast their ballots for Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right anti-immigrant National Front party. Le Pen won a stunning 18 percent of the vote.
Sarkozy denounced those who compared him to France’s Nazi collaborators because of his tough campaign rhetoric on immigrants, or to billion-dollar investment swindler Bernard Madoff.
“Borders are not a bad word,’’ Sarkozy said about his calls to limit the number of immigrants France takes in.
Hollande, meanwhile, took a similar position to Sarkozy when it came to special treatment for France’s large Muslim community.
He said he would not allow separate menus in public cafeterias or separate hours in swimming pools for men and women to satisfy Muslims’ demands, and also said he would firmly support France’s ban on the face-covering Islamic veils.
The contenders quibbled over statistics, at times over small margins; they scoffed sarcastically; and they spoke over each other, pointed fingers, and raised their voices. The two presenters repeatedly pleaded about running over time.
Above all, the two men bared their familiarity with each other after years as stalwarts of their respective parties.
The debate was preceded by the kind of dramatic build-up normally reserved for a heavyweight boxing championship, though analysts say past debates have never swung a French election, regardless of who comes off better in the showdown.