For this American in Paris, presidential politics, French-style, have been a sharp reminder that this country retains its peculiarities despite globalization. Wednesday night, President Nicolas Sarkozy faced off against his challenger Francois Hollande in a bitter, no-holds-barred, nearly three-hour debate that could not have been more different from the carefully choreographed, bland affairs that Americans usually endure.
The two candidates sat facing each other, without podiums or supportive audiences, and virtually no moderation. The two broadcasters serving as moderators were left speechless and largely passive as the two 57-year-olds tore at each other. Sarkozy repeatedly called his opponent a liar and his statements "lies" and "calumnies." Holland credited Sarkozy with polarizing France and refusing to take the blame for anything that happened in his five-year tenure. Sarkozy accused Hollande of "arrogance" and "incompetence" and at one low point said he would accept no moral lesson from the party that had been prepared to nominate Dominique Strauss-Kahn as its candidate.
In between insults, the two men disagreed over the severity of the recession, the economic condition of France and the right solution to restore growth. Sarkozy praised Germany's austere approach; Hollande called for a growth strategy. They tackled immigration, with both seeming to move to the right on reducing the number of people who move to France.
The debate was just one more example of the sharp differences with an American political race. For one, the airwaves have not been saturated with political ads. Access to media is strictly regulated to assure equal exposure. As a result, on-air appearances take place mostly on interview programs that the French seem to devour. With 10 declared candidates in the first round, all entitled to equal time, it was often a tedious exercise, but no fringe party could complain of being shut out. Even in Wednesday's debate, digital clocks strictly kept track of the time each candidate spoke and the moderators managed to keep it fairly even.
The debate did not appear to change many minds. Sarkozy may have tightened the gap by a point or so, but he is still the underdog, trailing by five or six points, according to the most-quoted surveys. He has been tacking sharply to the right, hoping to snag some of the 18 percent of French voters who chose far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, who spoke to a large May Day rally Tuesday in front of the gilded Opera Garnier. Le Pen wants France to drop out of the Euro, abandon EU-imposed austerity measures and close the door to immigration. But she made clear she saw no difference between the two candidates and declared said she would cast a blank ballot. "The next president," she told her fervent followers, "will be an employee of the European Central Bank."
Scene-setting was also important for Sarkozy, who chose the Eiffel Tower as the backdrop for his last big rally, with some 200,000 participants. As French political observers pointed out, and the debate confirmed, the two candidates have reversed roles: Hollande, calm and understated, comes across as, well, presidential; Sarkozy is the frantic challenger, firing off new proposals at every appearance as he tries to narrow the gap, more Duddy Kravitz than head of state. He has made immigration a touchstone, threatening to pull out of the pan-European "Schengen" agreement that lets people move about freely among the western European nations without border checks. Most recently, he's proposed a French language test for those who want to settle in France. If he sounds like his pants are on fire, it may be partly because he's behind in the polls but also because that's just the way he his. His critics complain that he's too "aggressive," too "américain." In the end, the election may hinge on style -- and many French voters seem exhausted by Sarkozy's frantic manner.
A day after the debate, Francois Bayrou, leader of the centrist Mouvement Democrate or MoDem, made a surprising endorsement of Hollande. But Bayrou, who made a strong showing five years ago, snagged a disappointing 9 percent of the electorate in the first round and is not likely to change the election's outcome.
Where the campaigns have been similar to the U.S. is the failure of either candidate to talk at all about issue of racial discrimination and France's festering suburban ghettos. Hollande made some forays into the rings of dangerous and dilapidated high-rise public housing projects that surround major French cities and was rewarded with a video that went viral. Sarkozy, widely disliked by the poor and minorities, also made a brief foray into the ghettos, but some media reported he had imported at least some members of his audience.
The silence on racial issues reflects French unease with such topics. Immigration is unsubtle substitute for race -- and Sarkozy argues that there are too many immigrants for the state to "integrate" successfully, which is aimed at those from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, but doesn't address the second- and third-generation children of immigrants who also feel alienated. French media periodically run tests of corporate employment practices that show clear biases against blacks and Arabs, but, in a country that refuses to keep racial statistics or to implement some form of affirmative action, there seems to be little progress on that front. With so many other issues to confront, both candidates have bet that the uneasy peace in those festering suburbs will hold at least until Sunday's election. Then they can be surprised all over again if there are new outbursts of frustration.