Source AP ©

Both sides claim victory after French presidential debate

Both French presidential candidates' camps proclaimed victory Thursday after a fiery, combative TV debate that was the only face-to-face encounter between conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal in the run-up to Sunday's vote.

Sarkozy has the lead in polls. Royal, in a last-ditch effort to win over the centrist voters on whom the election hinges, went on the offensive during the debate Wednesday night, criticizing Sarkozy's record and repeatedly interrupting him. Sarkozy kept his cool.

Sarkozy, a former interior minister, said Thursday he thought the debate was dignified, though he found Royal too combative.

"I was a bit astonished at times by a certain aggressiveness in Madame Royal," he said on RTL radio.

Royal, a former environment minister, defended her tough style, telling France-Inter radio on Thursday morning, "You can never go too much on the offensive when it comes to defending convictions and values."

During their bitter election campaign, the Socialist has sought to portray her conservative rival as too unstable and too brutal to lead the nuclear-armed nation. Sarkozy's camp, meanwhile, says Royal's ideas are fuzzy and that she does not have the experience to lead France.

Jean-Marc Ayrault, the Socialist leader of the National Assembly, said Royal showed "authority, dynamism and the modernity of a great president" in the debate. Sarkozy's spokespeople, Xavier Bertrand and Rachida Dati, said he was "much more precise and showed a much greater mastery of the issues, and of himself."

The two candidates disagreed on how to get France's sluggish economy working again, on whether Turkey should join the European Union, on how to safeguard French pensions and on whether taxes should be cut.

One big point of contention was France's 35-hour work week - a landmark reform for Socialists, but decried by business leaders as a crippling brake on companies.

Sarkozy wants to get around the 35-hour week by making overtime tax-free to encourage people to work more. He described the shortened work week as a "monumental error," and noted that no other country in Europe had followed France's lead.

Royal defended the move as a form of social progress and asked why, if it was so opposed, the government in which Sarkozy served had not got rid of the legislation.

Sarkozy and Royal were the last two candidates standing after the April 22 first round of voting in which Sarkozy won 31.2 percent and Royal had 25.9 percent, with 10 rival candidates across the political spectrum knocked out of the race.

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