French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande face off Wednesday in the only debate of the 2012 presidential election, and the Socialist candidate will look to cement his place as the front-runner in Sunday's second and final round to determine France's next president.
The debate will begin around 9 p.m. CET (3 pm EST) and run until 11:30 pm CET (5:30 EST). PolicyMic will be blogging the debate in real-time here. To follow along live, refresh this page for updates.
*** The debate is now over, the candidates have retreated from the stage and we are left to analyse the action.
In truth the debate was fractious, argumentaive, vibrant but bad-tempered. It was a tough battle for both candidates and - tonight - it seems that Hollande is still the favourite but that Nicolas Sarkozy has not given up hope nor the fight. The race is still somewhat open, but Hollande has shown that depsite the attacks, and the jibes, he can rise above Sarkozy and articulate a clear vision. ***
And it's the end. Debate over done with. Each candidate has had a perfectly measured amount of time.
Sarkozy says that he wants to address all French people. He wants to talk to those who voted for Marine Le Pen - the first mention of her name - he says he there no 'under-citizens' for him.
He goes after Bayrou's voters too. In essence he is addressing all those who voted for other parties, those that will be key to his success.
His closing is firm, addressed to those he needs to win this election. Sarkozy says he wants to assume his repsonsibility.
He wants to be the guide for the French in this difficult, dangerous world.
Hollande says the debate was uself and showed key differences between them. He says he wants to change politics, the method and very conception of the French Republic and wider French society.
So, he says, 'the choice is simple' : a choice that hasn't worked and is a risk; or change and take a new view of France and how to solve its many issues. Wants Youth to be at the forefront of his presidency, as well as justice. he wants it 'everywhere'. And he wants to 'unite' all those attached to the values of the Republic.
End of the debate and so closing statements.
Sarkozy talks of regional issues pertianing to sub-Saharan Africa. This is key he says, to confronting AQIM.
Of the hostages - he says Algeria is a stumbling block in the rescue of those hostages. they need to be pushed to work togetehr with other antions, to find a solution.
Question about French hotsgaes held by Al-Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Hollande says the root is to help countries affected, to help them confront this internal threat.
He says it is not possible to know how to liberate those hostages, as he is not privy to secret information.
Hollande says that there will be a withdrawal in 2012 of French troops, under an Hollande presidency.
Sarkozy says French troops have done amazing work in Afghanistan and reminds viewers of the Taliban's atrocities and crimes.
He wants the Afghan people to be freed of this taliabn 'gang'. He says progressively France is disengaging from Afghanistan; but in good order.
He has worked with Obama and NATO allies. He wants to respect that timetable. He highlights the extreme difficulties France would face in leaving at the end of 2012. Leaving allies in the lurch and the Taliban victorious.
Hollande says the scope of the mission has changed in the mandate of Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande says they need to withdraw the French troops from Afghanistan.
Holalnde wnats them back from Afghanistan at the end of 2012. Bold move, considering the key role France plays in NATO.
15 minutes left, and time for foreign policy.
First question: Afghanistan...when should troops be withdrawn.
Now, the moderators want to move onto Foreign Policy. But not before Sarkozy said he "will not take any lessons from the party associated with Dominique Strauss-Kahn"
Hollande counter sby saying: "How could I know DSK's private life?" Sarkozy looks stumped but recovers.
Control has been restored and Hollande is now engaing on what path of Presidency he would choose. He wants a Presidency that is non-partisan and angled towards justice.
Last words on this segment...and it's just bickering about small issues. No big vision. The debate on this segment will end in a certain amount of confusion.
Sarkozy cites examples of how his Presidency has not been partisan and thanks Hollande for 'his arrogance ' in supposing so.
The bickering is basically deteriorating the debate now. It has led to the candidates being absorbed in tiny details and not articulating their visions to end this programme.
"You say you will be a uniting force, but you only talk to those on the Left" - Says Sarkozy
Hollande said that he is not President yet, how can he unite when he has an election to win.
Bickering breaks out.
Hollande in these last few minutes has successfuly articulated his vision of France and his future Presidency. He did it well; and it coudl contributed to him winning.
Sarkozy counters; saying you cannot be a 'normal' President in uncertain times. Hollande's normality, he says, is not an asset. 'You brought a tear to my eye with your speech' and then launches into an open and vicious attack on Hollande and specifically his role in the former socialist President Mitterrand's legacy.
Sarkozy talks of being a modern President for a modern France.
Hollande begins by saying he wants to be the President who respects everyone, not control everything and he then launches into a list of faults of Nicolas Sarkozy that he will not be. Highlighting - cleverly - everything the French have grown to hate, despise and resent over the past five years. This could be the winning moment.
This - really - is Hollande's moment. Nicolas Sarkozy is no longer able to interrupt.
Final chapter of this debate - what style of President will you be?
Sarkozy says that he will do his upmost to do what's right for France, assuming the responsibilities of his office. He wants to propose a new French model of growth. He wnats nothing - even huge issues - to be impossible to be solved. He talks of experience and decision making. Highlighting his own record and five years in power.
Moderators looking super-weary, as they seek to bring the final statement part of the debate to the fore. BUT both Hollande and Sarkozy wants to have the last word on nuclear energy.
Debate is drawing to a close. Moderators struggling to control the two candidates who are fighting one another again.
After a lot of discussion on nuclear power, we have a visible detente. They have clamed down. Tired from almost two hours of intellectual sparing.
Hollande denounces a double dependency on oil and nuclear energy.
Needles Sarkozy for not going to Fukushima but saying that he did.
The time has now come for questions on nuclear energy. No sight of foreign policy.
Sarkozy says nuclear energy is a national asset.
No hallal meat under Hollande in French school cantines either.
Hollande says he will hold firm on his beliefs in office, not deviating from these promises. Sarkozy says 'let's be honest, don't joke, this isn't you'. Stinging.
Hollande will strictly enforce the Burka ban and no swimming pools will be segregated by sex. That will not happen according to Hollande.
Coming to the end of the debate, and Hollande looks affronted as he explains that Mulim French people also contribute to French civic life; and that it is somewhat insulting to insinuate that they are against the Republic. Hollande shakes his head in disbelief at Sarkozy's veering to the far right.
Hollande says that there will be no deviation under his Presidency from secularism in France. This will never happen under him, he emphasises.
Sarkozy talks of inter-communal tensions and Islam in France. He believes that immigrants will influence the nature of French democracy, by electing extreme candidates into local government, which will be destructive.
Hollande says this is rubbish. He says "Why do you assume those foreigners that aren't EU, are Muslim?" This is making Sarkozy rise and squirm at the same time. He's being called out on some FN voting credentials.
Time - says Sarkozy - to face reality; immigration in France stems from Africa, and North and sub-Saharan African. Thus the right to vote will not be taken up by Norwegians - says Sarkozy - but by Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians etc.
He says such communities are no longer on the other side of the Mediterranean. On this issue Sarkozy looks and sounds strong, but a touch far right. It is calculated to appeal to FN voters - this is his moment to gain their votes.
He says that giving immigrants the right to vote in local elections will encourage seperate bathing times, hospital admissions, etc.. for men and women. This is a problem says Sarkozy.
He has gone further than I would have expected. He brings up the Burka ban. He is painting himself as the strong candidate on immigration and national identity.
16: 47 ET
A debate - less vociferous than before - on immigration, specifically illegal immigrants. The issue about the latter is regarding local elections and immigrant participation.
Sarkozy wants immigrants to France to speak French - obviously - and to be in France for ten years and contributing to the economy and social institutions for five further years, before they can claim state benefits.
Sarkozy says that he inherited an immigration problem from the previous - socialist - administration, as minister of the interior.
Too many immigrants has paralysed France, which Sarkozy says, is an 'open' coutnry with borders that are difficult to police - even impossible, actualy, under Schengen.
He talks immigration policies to ease the system.
"Nicolas Sarkozy has been responsible for immigration, for ten years" so Hollande wants to know what the issue is now? How has this occured now? Why now? These are all ways for him to show that Sarkozy is using a phantom menace to France. In this vein, he goes through very precise figures to back up his ideas on immigration.
Hollande finds it absurd that asylum seekers wait for a year-and-a-half for an answer on their status. He wants that decreased.
Hollande says to Sarkozy 'You are not France', to which Sarkozy replies "The President represents France".
Now onto immigration, with only half an hour left.
Berlusconi is referred to by Hollande as Sarkozy's 'friend'. Sarkozy denies this. Obviously the bunga bunga references are a touch embarassing.
"I have never wanted austerity' says Sarkozy.
The moderator reminds both candidates that they need other topics of debate and that they are very late. But both of them plow on regardless.
Will they regret not being less combative?
Final point from Sarkozy in his segment - Thanks to cross-European cooperation says Sarkozy, Greece is still here. It has been tough and difficult, but he believes it has been successful. Europe is out of danger...for now.
Hollande says 'non'. He says Europe is still in crisis. He uses the example of France's election being heavily scrutinised by many countries and government worldwide, is proof that Europe is in crisis. This is a very valid point, but is rarely addressed openly in campaigning.
Alledges Angela Merkel stops Sarkozy from being less austere. But Sarkozy contends "Mr Hollande doe snot know Europe".
Sarkozy says his stewardship of France's economy must not be that bad, as France has never ever borrowed at such cheap interest rates - despite its credit downgrade.
He then says that no one in France wants France to be in the place of Spain.
He says growth - Hollande's watchword - is all good, but it cannot replace France's debt obligations and the need to bring down France's deficit. He says his policies have meant borrowing at cheap rates is still possible for France. Essentially - Sarkozy says - France needs to toghten its belt to be in better economic shape.
Onto the travails of France and the Eurozone and the bearbug of the European Central Bank.
Hollande says he wants to renegotiate the Eurozone Fiscal Compact. He thinks that restructuring and new taxes can help. He then attacks the ECB, saying that it lends money willy nilly and does not enforce rules when its member backs lend to sountries in trouble, like Greece or Spain, at very high interest rates. He refuses this and wants to change it.
16: 18 ET
The moderators want to move on to the topic of the Eurozone. My flatmate has retreated to bed, driven away no doubt by the amplified sound of a Sarkozy-Hollande political fight.
16: 15 ET
The candidates have got their figures in order, especially Nicolas Sarkozy. There is no Rick Perry style gaff here, just pure stats.
Talk of eleminating nurses, firemen and police. Both deny that they would cut, but both accuse the other of wanting to do so.
Important point: Sarkozy says that this is an open world. Why would people stay in france - which has some of the highest taxes in Europe - under Hollande, when they can go elseqhere. Who will be left asks Sarkozy.
Sarkoy alledges Hollande said that 'rich' people earn 4,000 euros a month; of course Hollande refutes this and says it was taken out of context.
He says higher taxes will be the norm under Hollande to fund economic 'follies' because Hollande 'cannot say no' to his Union friends.
Hollande talks of teacher sbeing cut and education being undermined by Sarkozy. He calls an injustice the fact that certain French people must wait until 62 to retire. The extra two years are an injustice.
But Hollande is not annoucing whether he would lift this; I imagine he knows he cannot.
Real anger now. As Hollande refers to Ingride Bettencourt, the heiress of L'Oreal who is alledged to have massively contributed to Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign and illegally done so.
Sarkozy looked incensed. He is vulnerable to this charge.
"You think you can call to me everything you want." Says Hollande.
This comes after Sarkozy said that he found it a 'lie' to be referred to as a perotector of the rich.
Whenever Hollande complains, there is a background noise of Nicolas Sarkozy almost bleating "monsieur, monsieur, monsieur".
Sarkozy also rebutts a previous charge of being economically bad for France and says he has not heard a single good economic idea from Hollande.
Killer quote by Sarkozy: "How can you claim to want to cut deficits but increase the number of civil-servants by 60,000" this already - as states Nicolas Sarkozy- when the French state accounts for 56% of GDP. He says Hollande 'lies'.
Hollande says: 'This is becoming a habit of yours, for your mouth to call me a liar'.
France24 retweets someone in France who says that there is more aggressivity than policies in this debate. Undoubtedly true. It's clamer now, but occasionally it flares up in a fairly impressive, 100% French fashion.
Sarkozy talks of old deficits under previous - Socialist - PMs and Presidents. He also mentions in passing these refer to files of which Hollande has been 'absent fro a while'. The inexperience argument shines forth.
Hollande alludes to a toxic fiscla legacy from Sarkozy. This is a key gripe of the French, especially with Sarkozy being seen as President Bling Bling.
Again, fairly dense France-specific economic policies. But the key message Hollande is giving, is vote for me for better, more controlled and less buffeted economic times.
Onto state spending. Admonished by the moderator for one-and-half minute lateness.
Hollande talks about the huge growth of public debt under Nocolas Sarkozy. Key figure: it has grown by 200%.
The economy section is coming to an end. Sarkozy ends the segment by telling Hollande that Nuclear power should not be cancelled in view of the price hike in other energies.
Interruption. Moderators try and stop them. Little fracas. How very Gallic.
Fairly dense material on France's low-income earners now.
It's interesting that Sarkozy points - of course - to his experience when faced with difficult questions but Hollande only has his manifesto to point to. This is a major weak point, so Sarkozy is trying to seems as though he is lecturing Hollande, therefore in a position of authority and knowledge.
This is political foie-gras on a silver platter. Here are two men that are huge political heavyweights, engaging in a quite a visceral manner with each other. They are staring each other down.
Unlike in US election where they face an audience, here there is no audience; nowhere to hide. Just your opponent. Highly trained in rhetoric, both sides are seeking to find the killer chink in each other's armour. None found yet.
More talk of lies and false promises - by both sides. Sarkozy at one point says to Hollande "This isn't the "Competition of the little joke"...making refernce to Hollande's semi-humourous jokes and hinting at an unserious nature.
Hollande calls Sarkozy disagreeable. And he probably would be; but in a debate he gets down in there, fighting in the metaphorical dirt.
"The truth about your plan for growth, is that not one country in the world uses that model." Says Sarkozy.
"I have always assumed my responsibilites' says Sarkozy as he launches into a finale on the unemployment front, mentions Germany again. If this was a drinking game and when you drank as Germany was mentioned, it'd be lights out, furniture all over the place and quasi-comatose state in effect.
15: 35 ET
'It's never your fault. It's always others' States Hollande. Little justification about iPads with Hollande justifying his decision to give one to all students in his home departement of Correze.
Hollande wants to know what role Sarkozy has played in the growth of France's deficit. Sarkozy is silent, letting the clock wind down, so he can grab the last word on this segment. Cunning.
15: 33 ET
If we were to do a JFK and Nixon screen-test; then both would fail. Sarkozy looks tired and slightly menancing, lurching towards the cameras. Hollande looks pudgy and quite - dare I say - shiny.
Sarkozy says he will respond minutiously to all the 'lies' that are being propogated. He cites Germany as a great economic example. He says France should follow Germany's and not Greece's or Spain's example.
More brawling about deficits and constant interruptions; it's not pretty.
A million people more out of work since Sarkozy came to power, contends Hollande. He calls Germany example used by Sarkozy 'terrible'. He says you have TEN (emphasis added) years. 'Why have you not fixed this?' This alledges Hollande is Sarkozy's responsibility.
Germany mentioned again by Sarkozy. He cites that firms go there instead of France. He wants to lower employment costs in France. He's had 5 years, why coudl this not have been done beforehand?
Some dense ideas about the economy, without many specifics apart from a new social contract.
Sarkozy calls the figures cited by Hollande 'mad'. He says that France's unemployment crisis is not as bad as other EU countries; even bucking the EU average. He disagrees that he is the cause of unemployment.
Sarkozy says, even germany went up in terms of unemployment. Even 'socialist' Spain. Sarkozy is on the attack tonight, it's all about detroying Hollande's programme.
First mention of Germany. Hollande contends that growth is needed to tackle unemployment. Really, now?
The moderators move the debate onto the economy and specifically unemployment.
Sarkozy goes for the killer. "Why did you not condemn those who called me Petain, Laval and even Hitler?" Hallande objects. Fiery. Sarkozy says Hollande has not got the energy to stop them
Hollande lists everything he's been called - even onto zoo animals and Stalin - and says Sarkozy can hardly play the victim here. Hollande says France has suffered during these 5 years, but not because of Sarkozy's henchmen but because of the President himself.
Sarkozy tries to interrupt but cannot. The moderators interveen to allow Hollande to continue.
"At what price came your reforms?" asks Hollande. He says the lack of violence is not attributable to Sarkozy's leadership but the wider French society at large.
Sarkozy launches into a speech, more of a diatribe, on the bias shown by big unions towards him. "Is this Unity?" he asks Hollande.
There is a lot of talk of Truth. So much so, it smacks of a cheap talk show.
Rapidly Hollande moves on, seeking to emphasise his ability to unite people. He tries to contrast Sarkozy's divisiveness with his own potential ability for empathy and unity. Sarkozy interjects and says he has been President for five years. He is the only one - he says - not to have faced huge public demonstrations and strikes. He has stopped civil war by not bringing out inflamatory remarks - I hope that's a rhetorical flourish.
He says he's proud, because some - he addresses Hollande - merely 'talk' of unity, he is the one who enacts it.
Sarkozy denounces this statement by Hollande as 'classic'. Sneering has begun. He refers to 'crises' and not 'crisis' that France is undergoing. He articulated his vision for France, advocating that he too wants to unite France. Hollande interjects, but it rebuffed by Sarkozy. Control is being maintained by Sarkozy, he wants to put Hollande into his place.
Hollande says he will be the 'President of social Justice' if he is elected. He wants to stop shielding the 'priviledged few'. He acknowledges core issues pertaining to unemployment and the economic crisis gripping France. He also wants to be a President that unites France; referring - veiled attack on Sarkozy there - to ther ebeing a divided France.
The moderators welcome us. Talking of this being a 'tradition of the Republic'.
They are in the middle, straddling - as it were - the two candidates. Everything is going to be timed to allow for maximum fairness. The economy is the first topic of dicussion; followed by immigration and other themes from this campaign.
And they're off. Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy face each other across a table in the form of a large 'X'. They're - apparently - 125 cm apart. Face to face. It must be quite intimidating - if both were not such political animals.
So, the opening statement goes to Francois Hollande - as was agreed prior to this debate - with Nicolas Sarkozy closing the debate. Everything has been minutiously timed, prepared, even the air temperature is set to 19.5 degrees Centigrade. Such precision is born out of control, to avoid any potential environment caused upset.
Tonight, I feel that the economy will play a large role in the debate, as will immigration, national identity and the relationship of France with members of the Eurozone, specifically Germany. It is highly unlikely that the debate will feature any ambush by candidates with information or new policies. Both will try and play it safe, hoping the other drops the ball.
Currently on France24 - a 24 hour news station broadcasting in French, English and Arabic (although not at the same time) - a pundit is saying that one of the candidates retreated 'to the ranch' for debate practice. If only there was a ranch in Paris.
So, on come the preliminary pundit chat. The show will be moderated by two journalists, very famous in France, but memorable to me principally because one of them is called Laurence Ferrari. Wonderful name.
Time to go. It's getting quite excited here in the French media. This is the evnt of 2012 for them.
What advice do you think the GOP candidates can offer Hollande and Sarkozy? Would you hire Newt Gingrich as debate coach or Herman Cain as rhetoric stylist?
Tweets welcome to: @PolicyMic or @WilliamHDBauer
If you would like - and speak French - to see an infamous slam dunk by then President Francois Mitterrand on his rival candidate Prime Minister Jacques Chirac in 1988. It is truly astounding.
Take a look.
The time nears for the debate; which should last one hour and portray each candidate fairly in time and image - to adheer to France's very strict electoral rules.
A few key facts about this election so far.
1. In the first round there was about an 80% voter turnout.
2. Nicolas Sarkozy is 5ft 5in tall, whereas Francois Hollande is 5ft 8.5 in. President de Gaulle was - as a point of reference - 6ft 4in.
3. Sarkozy wanted three televised debates but Hollande would only give one.
4. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy went head to head with Francois Hollande's then girlfriend for the Presidency. And needless to say, he won.
5. Hollande used to be far pudgier than he is now. This earned him the nickname 'Flanby', after a beige french dessert that wibbles and wobbles.
If you're looking to watch the debate, then head over to the following link, on which you can watch it and the run-up live from Paris: www.france24.fr/en
14:15 pm ET
Bonjour, Good Afternoon and Bienvenue to the French 2012 Presidential Debate.
The debate is very exciting for France and for French people, but also for anyone with an interest in politics or international relations. France, after all, is a member of the security council, a key nationa within NATO and the world's ninth largest economy. So, this election matters greatly.
During the debate please feel free to tweet at us to @PolicyMic or @WilliamHDBauer, using #France2012
UPDATES: 2:03 pm ET Debate to begin at 3:00pm EST.
BACKGROUND: The stakes are high for Sarkozy, as he seeks to overcome a deficit in all major opinion polls ahead of Sunday's vote. After finishing in second place behind Hollande in the first round of elections on April 22, Sarkozy has challenged Hollande to three debates on TV or radio, but Hollande refused his offer, as it is French tradition to hold just one debate between the two rounds of the presidential elections.
An Ifop poll published Wednesday showed 54% of potential voters in favor of Hollande, while 46% would pick Sarkozy. As a result, expect Sarkozy to come out swinging, attacking Hollande's lack of experience in governance. Sarkozy says he will challege Hollande on immigration policy, as he seeks to convince the 18% of the French public who voted for far right candidate Marine Le Pen that he's the right man for the job.
Meanwhile, Hollande is likely to attack Sarkozy's record as president. In an interview, Hollande said: "I'll present a program, defend myself and call into question the record of the outgoing president."
See a full list of the top 10 things to watch for in Wednesday's debate here.
2:03 pm ET Debate to begin at 3:00pm EST.