French President Nicolas Sarkozy locked horns with his Socialist rival Francois Hollande in a testy television duel that was billed as Sarkozy's last chance to save his re-election bid on Sunday.
Sarkozy went into the gruelling 2.5-hour television debate on Wednesday evening as the rank outsider.
Polls show Hollande, who led the first round of the election on April 22, winning Sunday's runoff with between 53-54 per cent of the vote.
The air crackled with tension as the two men, both dressed in black suits and black ties, squared off across a table.
Sarkozy and Hollande clashed repeatedly in their only televised debate as the president said he wanted the prime-time debate to be a "moment of truth".
In the early part of the debate, Hollande said he aimed to be "the president of justice", "the president of revival" and "the president of unity".
Hollande said Sarkozy, in office for the last five years, had divided the French people for too long and was using the global economic crisis as an excuse for broken promises.
"With you it's very simple: it's never your fault," Hollande said.
Sarkozy repeatedly accused his opponent of lying about economic figures and reeled off reams of statistics in an attempt to unbalance his rival.
French analysts say there was no clear winner to the debate, and that Hollande proved himself more than a match for Sarkozy, known for his debating skills.
Françoise Fressoz, a leading political columnist for the French daily newspaper Le Monde, told the paper on Thursday that there was no clear winner to the debate.
"But what is most striking is to see that Francois Hollande never let Nicolas Sarkozy dominate him," he said.
While Sarkozy tried to position himself as an authority figure, Hollande did not allow himself to be trapped, Fressoz said, and managed to limited his opponent's ability to appeal to far-right voters and keep him on the defensive.
"From the beginning of the debate, Hollande effectively accused him of 'playing' the French people off against each other and 'dividing' them. In response, M Sarkozy absolutely had to escape from being cast as the villain," he said.
"As a result, [Sarkozy] was much less dominating than usual."
No knockout blow
Sarkozy needed to win a decisive victory in the debate to have any chance of catching up in the last four days but neither candidate landed a knockout blow.
"Mr Hollande. When you lie so shamelessly, do I have to accept it?" Sarkozy asked when he was accused of being always happy with his record.
"It's a lie. It's a lie. It's a lie."
Sarkozy said: "The example I want to follow is Germany and not Spain or Greece."
He declared that he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had saved Greece from an economic wipeout and avoided the collapse of the euro currency.
"Europe has got over it," Sarkozy said.
Hollande shot back: "Europe has not got over it. Europe is today facing a possible resurgence of the crisis with generalised austerity, and that's what I don't want."
He said people around Europe were watching the French election in hope that it would change the continent's direction towards growth.
The duel was carried live on channels that reach roughly half France's 44.5 million voters. The streets of Paris were unusually deserted with many people staying home to watch.
Twenty TV cameras scrutinised the two rivals from every angle as they sat 2.5 metres apart across a table, twin digital clocks ticking to ensure each had equal speaking time.
The two sides had agreed on every logistical detail, down to the temperature of the TV studio - between 19 and 20 degrees Celsius and chairs adjustable for height.
The conservative head of state and his centre-left rival have duelled at a distance for months, with Sarkozy accusing Hollande of being incompetent and a liar, and Hollande branding the incumbent a "failed president" and "a nasty piece of work".
When they finally met in a television studio, the exchanges were just as barbed.
Sarkozy suffered a setback on Tuesday when far-right leader Marine Le Pen - whose 17.9 per cent score was the surprise of the first round - refused to endorse him.
She vowed at a Paris rally to cast a blank vote and told her supporters to make their own choice, focusing most of her attacks on Sarkozy.
The issue of how to deal with the anti-immigration crusader and her supporters continues to torment Sarkozy's UMP party.
Senior party leaders rebuked Gerard Longuet, defence minister, for telling an extreme-right weekly that Le Pen could be someone the mainstream right could talk to.
The candidates also tangled on immigration, with Sarkozy attacking Hollande's proposal to give long-term, non-European foreign residents the right to vote in local elections.
Hollande lead tightens
A TNS Sofres poll published on Wednesday found 37 per cent of voters agreed with the National Front's positions, the highest level since 1984. Just over half said France had too many immigrants.
Sarkozy, being punished for rife unemployment and a brash manner, is the most unpopular president to run for re-election and the first in recent history to lose a first-round vote.
He began campaigning weeks after the more plodding Hollande, vowing to boost industrial competitiveness, hold referendums on contentious policies, crack down on tax exiles and make the unemployed retrain as a condition for receiving benefits.
More recently, seeking to court the 6.4 million National Front voters, he has vowed to cut immigration and threatened to pull out of Europe's Schengen zone of passport-free travel unless the European Union's external borders are strengthened.
"Sarkozy needs to swing 1.5 million people to his side. It won't be easy, but that doesn't mean it's impossible," Bernard Sananes, head of the CSA polling institute, told BFM TV.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|