Three days ahead of the decisive second round of France’s presidential election and one day after the one-and-only face-to-face-debate between the two candidates, most observers in France concluded that while the clash between Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger Francois Hollande was entertaining and tense, it failed to establish a clear victor.

The three-hour duel was watched by almost 18 million people (out of an electorate of 44.5 million) and lived up to expectations of a lively exchange of emotions and occasional insults, according to Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The French economy and immigration, as expected, dominated the clash.

During the feisty debate, Sarkozy defended his economic policies and asserted that he staved off a recession in France while Hollande charged that the country is in serious crisis.”

The two exchanged various insults and slanders.

For example, after Hollande accused Sarkozy of ruining the French economy, the president shouted: It's a lie, it's a lie!
Alain Duhamel, a political analyst, commented: It was a very high-level debate… and extremely bellicose.”

Most French media adjudged the debate as a draw.

It was a draw but as Mr. Hollande started as favorite, he remains the favorite. Mr. Sarkozy did not manage to destabilize him, which was his objective from the start, wrote Francoise Fressoz in the Le Monde newspaper.

Douglas Yates, assistant professor of political science at the American University of Paris and professor at the American Graduate School in Paris, said of the debate: The audience was huge, and attracted people from all walks of life. The general impression was that neither candidate clearly 'knocked out' the other one. But since all that Hollande needed to do was survive, he could be considered as having accomplished his objectives. 

The Le Parisien newspaper commented: Sarkozy hoped to 'explode' his adversary. He showed himself to be very pugnacious but didn't manage [to knock him out]. Hollande, who had prepared for a 'rough' debate, came across as more precise and more solid than [Sarkozy] had imagined. On paper, this draw serves the favorite in the opinion polls [Hollande], to the incumbent's detriment.

The Libération paper, which leans to the left, declared Hollande the winner.
Obliged to attack, [Sarkozy] didn't manage to unseat the Socialist candidate, who responded blow for blow,” the paper wrote.

The Socialist kept bringing the incumbent president back to his record, then developed his proposals, which conferred an authority that often irritated his adversary.

The conservative paper Le Figaro was one of the few publications that declared Sarkozy triumphant in the debate.

“Sarkozy reminded his rival that the world has changed since the socialists were last in power,” the paper wrote.

Sarkozy is behind Hollande in the polls by as many as seven percentage points, although the incumbent has been gradually eating away at that lead. Sarkozy received a potential death-blow to his chances when Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the extreme right-wing National Front who received an unprecedented 18 percent of the vote in the first-round, refused to endorse either candidate.

Nonetheless, Sarkozy had been courting Le Pen’s voters by pandering to their anti-immigration sentiments.

On Thursday morning, Sarkozy against addressed this group whose support he desperately needs.

The opinion polls are lying. An election has never been this open ... It's even more open after the debate, he told RTL radio.

I want to speak directly to National Front voters. Who would benefit if you cast a blank vote? It would benefit Hollande, the regularization of [illegal] immigrants, crazy overspending.

As for Hollande, he is not assuming he will win, despite what the polls indicate.

On Thursday morning, he told France Inter radio: “I'm fully aware that nothing is over, nothing has been won.”

Yates added that the general consensus is that the final tally will be much closer than what the polls suggest.

The conventional wisdom is that Hollande will win, Yates noted.  [But] I am sticking with my own prediction that Sarkozy will win.

On a side note, Yates indicated that Sarkozy sent out a booklet to everybody with a mailbox in France -- a long Lettre de Nicolas Sarkozy au Peuple Français (A Letter From Nicolas Sarkozy to the French People).

[It] is a remarkably long piece of campaign literature, Yates noted. Imagine a magazine-sized glossy brochure 34 pages in length, single-spaced. In it he has outlined his campaign, his ideas, and what he opposes [Hollande's campaign]. This open letter is his 'last chance,' because it came after the debate.

Meanwhile, Francois Bayrou, the centrist candidate who gained about 9 percent of the first-round vote, will reveal later Thursday whom he will support.