Hollande, ahead in opinion polls by six to 10 points, was calm and unflappable during the nearly three-hour debate while the conservative Sarkozy, struggling to catch up with the moderate social democrat, appeared agitated and tense.
Commentators said the confrontation, watched by 17.8m people out of an electorate of 44.5m, was probably a draw but its outcome appeared to favour Hollande by laying to rest doubts about the character of a man who has never held a ministerial position.
“The question asked before the debate was could François Hollande be a president? After yesterday, no one can say he cannot, so he won,” said Dominique Reynie, professor at Sciences Po university and head of the liberal think-tank Fondapol.
Returning to the airwaves yesterday in a bid to convince waverers, Sarkozy appealed to the nearly one-fifth of voters who backed the National Front in the first round on Apr 22.
In a setback for Sarkozy, far-right leader Marine Le Pen refused to endorse him this week.
“An election has never been this open. The opinion polls are lying... And it’s even more open after the debate,” Sarkozy 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 regularisation of illegal immigrants, crazy overspending.”
Television commentators said Sarkozy had performed “like a boxer” in Wednesday night’s debate and Hollande “like a judo fighter”, using flashes of wit to unbalance his rival.
“Hollande still favourite after the debate”, Le Monde wrote on its front page, while right-leaning Le Figaro, with a headline “High Tension”, emphasised the bitterness of the exchanges. It noted that every eurozone leader to seek re-election since 2008 had lost, but divisions on the left and Hollande’s tax-and-spend policies gave Sarkozy a chance.
Hollande, 57, was confident and relaxed in the early exchanges of the debate, saying he aimed to be “the president of justice” and “the president of unity”.
He said Sarkozy, also 57 and in office since 2007, had divided the French people and was using the global economic crisis as an excuse for broken promises. “With you it’s very simple: it’s never your fault,” Hollande said.
Sarkozy repeatedly accused his opponent of lying about economic figures and reeled off reams of statistics in an attempt to swamp his adversary. Deriding Hollande’s pledge to be a “normal president”, Sarkozy said: “Your normality is not up to the challenge.”
In a sign of desperation and sensing he was losing the fight, Sarkozy said: “I have no lessons to learn from a party that wanted to rally behind Dominique Strauss-Kahn,” the disgraced former IMF leader.
“You’re not capable of developing a line of reasoning without being rude,” Hollande said, later adding: “Me, I will protect the children of the republic. You, you protect the most privileged.”
Markets appeared unfazed at the prospect of France electing its first socialist president since François Mitterrand left office in 1995.
Hollande has soothed investors’ concerns in recent weeks by moderating his call for the renegotiation of a German-inspired European budget discipline treaty, which many had feared would derail efforts to deal with the eurozone crisis.
Europe was one of the main subjects of Wednesday’s debate, as well as the sickly economy, high unemployment, nuclear power, and immigration.
“The example I want to follow is Germany and not Spain or Greece,” Sarkozy said, declaring that he and German chancellor Angela Merkel had saved Greece from an economic wipeout and avoided the collapse of the euro.
“Europe has got over it,” Sarkozy said of the crisis.
Hollande shot back: “Europe has not got over it. Europe is today facing a possible resurgence of the crisis with generalised austerity, and that’s what I don’t want.”
Sarkozy, being punished in part for his brash manner, is the most unpopular president to run for re-election. He was the first in recent history to lose a first-round vote, with Hollande benefiting from the anti-incumbent sentiment that has swept 11 eurozone leaders from office since 2009.
The streets of Paris were unusually deserted as many people stayed home to watch the debate, although some chose to follow the clash at their local café.
“It has been 50-50. There is no clear winner,” said Jacques Dufoix, 36, a computer engineer, watching the debate in a central Paris sports bar.
“I don’t think this is going to change the way anyone votes. People have already made up their minds.”
Only 9% of voters said the debate would be decisive for their choice, according to the Fondapol foundation. But if the poll gap continues to narrow it is not possible to rule out a Sarkozy victory.