By Stephen Sandelius

PARIS (MNI) – Polls of French voters’ preferences for the
presidency ahead of Wednesday’s televised debate still gave Socialist
candidate Francois Hollande a comfortable lead over the incumbent
Nicolas Sarkozy.

While the images and arguments of the adversaries during the
marathon face-off might still sway fence-sitters before Sunday’s run-off
election, the debate — carried by two TV channels — produced no new
proposals and no obvious winner.

Beneath the exchange of rhetoric and personal attacks, both
candidates agreed on the need to cut deficits and debt, encourage
innovation and investment, hike taxes on investment earnings and
financial transactions, promote renewable energies, and reduce

The major differences centered on Hollande’s preference for higher
taxes on the wealthy and his determination to counter austerity policies
in France with more spending for education and families and higher
minimum wages, and in Europe through pressure on Germany and the ECB for
stimulus programs financed at the EU level or with eurobonds.

Sarkozy countered that “growth cannot be exchanged for a reduction
of our debt” and argued for cutting labor costs with a hike in the VAT
in order to enhance competitiveness and reduce the trade deficit. He
repeatedly attacked Hollande’s “spending fever” and warned that a cap on
gasoline prices would ultimately be financed by taxpayers.

“Your proposals are for more taxes, more charges and more
spending,” Sarkozy asserted. “I haven’t heard you pronounce a single
measure of savings.”

Hollande no doubt scored points in spotlighting the deterioration
of public finances, the trade balance and the labor market during
Sarkozy’s term and the price in terms of social cohesion of the
structural reforms he has launched.

“It’s never your fault,” Hollande said, mimicking his opponent’s
defense. “Whatever happens, you’re happy. The French less so.”

Sarkozy was at his best in defending the economic advantages gained
from nuclear energy and highlighting the risks of uncontrolled
immigration and of allowing immigrants to vote in local elections.

The media will have a field day with the lapses and inaccuracies
committed on both sides. But the average viewer will no doubt find his
personal preferences confirmed by the debate and face a choice this
Sunday between a Socialist promising to heal the nation’s wounds with
unity and a reformer aiming to assure the country’s standing in a
competitive globalized economy.

The traditional TV debate has rarely tipped the scales, except
perhaps the first face-off in 1974, when the two candidates were nearly
neck-and-neck in the polls.

This time around, all the polls give Hollande at least a six-point
lead over Sarkozy, and there has been little change since the night of
the first round of voting on April 22, when the Socialist placed first
among the ten candidates, surpassing the incumbent by 1.5 points.

“For a debate to be decisive, there must be a clear domination of
one by the other, a weak spread in the polls and flexibility in public
opinion,” explained CSA pollster Jerome Sainte-Marie.

In an Ipsos poll conducted over the weekend, 22% of the respondents
said they could still change their minds — largely those who chose
runners-up in the first round. Only 10% of those who voted Sarkozy or
Hollande were open to a shift.

The same poll suggested that Hollande could win 80% of the
first-round votes for the left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and 34%
of those for the centrist Francois Bayrou, compared to 3% and 40%,
respectively, who favor Sarkozy. Some 54% of the votes for the
right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen could go to Sarkozy and 14% to
Hollande, giving Hollande an overall lead of six points

A separate BVA poll at the start of this week, predicting slightly
more favorable transfers of votes for Hollande, came up with a spread of
seven points and a higher probability that initial supporters of Bayrou
or Le Pen might sit out the run-off.

Estimating that the turnout this Sunday could be higher than for
the first round, BVA concluded that more of these potential first-time
voters are inclined to back Hollande. On the other hand, voters 65 and
older, who tend to favor Sarkozy, are less inclined to abstain than
younger voters, who tend to favor Hollande.

BVA also asked how important the TV debate would be for
respondents’ vote. Two-thirds replied that it would certainly play no
role and another 23% thought it would likely have no influence, leaving
only 11% who thought it would, or perhaps could, change their choice.

“Theoretically” it would be enough for Sarkozy to capture a third
of that 11% to overcome his vote deficit, acknowledged BVA pollster Gael
Sliman. However, voters on the right wing, who have been the focus of
Sarkozy’s campaign since the first round, appear the least flexible, he
said, whereas those in the middle may well be dissuaded by his
right-leaning strategy.

Moreover, “it has never been proven that a debate between the two
rounds was able to modify the political forces,” Sliman argued. “In the
current case, Hollande’s lead is such that an upset would appear even
more incredible.”

–Paris newsroom +331 4271 5540; email:

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