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French debate captivates 18 million, boosts Hollande (+video)

In last night's presidential debate, challenger Francois Hollande matched President Nicolas Sarkozy point for point, occasionally putting the famed debater on the defensive.

Reaction to the Sarkozy-Hollande French presidential debate
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Francois Hollande showed France last night that he has the teeth and fire in his belly to stand up to President Nicolas Sarkozy, and that despite his relative inexperience and laidback persona, he can meet the incumbent toe-to-toe on difficult economic and social issues.

Some French analysts and media described the debate as Mr. Hollande's emergence as a French politician of stature. Until now, few French have seen him embroiled in the rough and tumble of politics. 

In an intense, record-long three-hour slugfest viewed by 18 million French – the first and only debate between the two presidential candidates – Mr. Sarkozy met expectations as the tough and skilled verbal swordsman who has led France since 2007. But the significance of the much-awaited debate ahead of the May 6 vote is that Hollande exceeded expectations in a showdown in which analysts said he only needed to achieve a draw. 

Sarkozy has narrowed the gap between himself and Hollande to four to six percent, from eight to 12 percent two weeks ago. Sarkozy's camp hoped the debate would provide either a chance for Sarkozy to deliver a knockout blow or induce a meltdown by Hollande, and yesterday the president predicted he would "maul" Hollande in front of the nation.

But that did not happen. Hollande often matched him point for point, and occasionally put him on the defensive. 

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