French Presidential Candidates Hold TV Debate

France's top presidential candidates, socialist Segolene Royal and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, touch on their plans for employment, retirement accounts. Voters go to the polls Sunday.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. Renee Montagne is in London reporting on climate change. I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And this is the sound of democracy in France.

Mr. NICOLAS SARKOZY (French Presidential Candidate): (French spoken)

Ms. SEGOLENE ROYAL: (French Presidential Candidate): (French Spoken)

Mr. SARKOZY: (French Spoken)

Ms. ROYAL: (French spoken)

INSKEEP: That's a televised debate between two presidential candidates there. French voters return to the polls this Sunday for the second round of their presidential election. Whoever wins will become the country's next leader. It's considered a close race between the socialist candidate Segolene Royal and her conservative rival, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Ms. ROYAL: (French spoken)

Mr. SARKOZY: (French spoken)

INSKEEP: And that's the sound of their meeting last night, their only televised debate. The lively exchange lasted two and a half hours, and among those watching was reporter Eleanor Beardsley. So, how did they do?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Well, there's no decisive winner in this debate. Each candidate did what they set out to do. Sarkozy, who has been accused of being aggressive and agitated, he even has these facial tics, he had to remain calm to show people that he could have composure and calm. Segolene Royal, who has been behind him in the polls, she's been accused of not being substantive, she had to appear strong and knowing her issues. And they both did that.

And, in fact, they both went so far to avoid their pitfalls that they reversed roles. As you heard in that clip, Segolene Royal attacked Sarkozy almost the entire debate. She was the attack dog of the debate. She was the aggressor and she really put him on the defensive.

INSKEEP: Getting past the theatrics, is there substance in this race that was debated seriously here?

BEARDSLEY: Oh, absolutely. They went through the entire gamut of ideas, from Europe to the deficit to employment to retirement accounts to education; they really spoke about every issue. And what you'll notice was Nicolas Sarkozy was better on the fine points, the numbers, he seemed to know exactly what he was going to do.

At a couple of points, Segolene Royal was vague, especially when it came to funding retirement accounts. She kept talking about a tax she was going to put, and he'd say how much, and she'd say, I don't have to tell you that. So she seemed vague sometimes, but then she would have an overall vision of what she wanted to do. It was clear she knew what she wanted to do. And then on issues that she really knew well, such as education, she was very strong. But the analysts are saying this morning that in the fine points, in the details, Nicolas Sarkozy probably came out ahead.

INSKEEP: Well, if you're an American paying attention to this, I suppose we may wonder what direction this important U.S. ally may be taken by its next president. Does each of these candidates represent a fundamentally different direction?

BEARDSLEY: Yes, they do. Her direction is a social fairness for France. She talks about fairness and equality. So every step she would take with regard to the economy would be coupled by - she kept talking about we will have dialog with our social partners, we will ask the French people. So any kind of growth, she's a lot for state intervention. She says she doesn't want to create new things to fund but she wants to move the money around so that they will fund more efficiently programs. But she thinks that growth, economic growth, doesn't have to come at the expense of social values, and she talked often about how many people live under the poverty level and how many children were not getting enough to eat.

Sarkozy, he wants to let the free market forces come in. He talked about unleashing France's capacity to work. He wants to take away a lot of these rules that keep people from working. He wants to let people work over 35 hours a week, and he wants to let the market come in and create growth. And he says with that money, then we can see about social things.

So she wants to couple it with social fairness measures and he just wants to let the market come in and let France grow.

INSKEEP: Well, let's be clear here - this is a highly, highly regulated welfare state. Is this election about whether France really continues that way?

BEARDSLEY: Not really, because when it came down to the 35-hour workweek, it was funny. They had a heated exchange about that. And at the end she made him admit that he would not get rid of it, and he made her admit that she would change it. So nobody's going to come in here and overturn anything. And, in fact, the French, even Sarkozy, they like these protections. Sarkozy is just saying he wants to run it more efficiently. Segolene Royal is saying there's too many injustices in it, I want it to run more efficiently and be more fair.

INSKEEP: How closely are people paying attention to this election?

BEARDSLEY: This debate was watch by more than 20 million viewers. It's been very warm lately, and so everyone had their windows opened. At one point I went out, because it went on for two hours and 40 minutes, I went out and just walked down the street. And you could hear the debate coming out of everybody's window in Paris. And usually there's a lot of people out on the streets. No one was out on the street. Everybody was inside watching this debate.

INSKEEP: That's reporter Eleanor Beardsley giving us a glimpse of political life in France. Eleanor, thanks very much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Steve.

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