By Miao Xiaojuan， Luo Jun， Shi Xu
Paris, May 3 (Xinhua) -- Incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger Francois Hollande went through a fierce verbal battle in a prime-time televised debate that lasted for almost three hours on Wednesday night, but neither achieved any apparent advantage.
Although the de-facto effect on voters' decision remains to be found out by further opinion polls, Sarkozy seemed not set to gain much momentum as he had wished earlier in the face-off against his rival who already leads by 6 to 8 percent in all polls for the runoff election on Sunday.
Sarkozy had been quizzing and mocking at the left-wing frontrunner throughout the whole debate, while surprisingly, Holland also behaved just as fiercely as his rival. The two did not come up with any jokes and rather focused on arguing about domestic concerns, particularly economic and immigration headaches.
The incumbent repeatedly called Hollande a "liar" and a "slander" while Holland accused him of dividing France. French TV journalist Bastien Hugues even said in his Twitter postings that the debate was by far the most aggressive one as he had watched each of them since 1974.
While debating on the most-concerned growth and jobs, Sarkozy alleged that Hollande's economic plan could only be catastrophic and might cause market chaos. He also denied unemployment figures given by Hollande, saying its increase was twice less than other EU countries.
One of the few funny moments could be Sarkozy's hitting back by saying that Germany had been doing the opposite of the policies proposed by Hollande, in response to Hollande's question why Germany was doing better than France.
Indeed the tensions started from the very beginning. Hollande, in his first few sentences, vowed to be a president of "justice" that would restore production and bring the French people together, which was immediately refuted by Sarkozy as "too late if voters elect someone from scratch."
Meanwhile, Hollande did not make it any easier for Sarkozy either. When he complained about being unfairly blamed for the country's economic problems after years of crisis, Hollande sarcastically responded that "it is never your fault."
One of France 24's politics editors even commented that Hollande was "feistier than expected" and the debate had got very personal very quickly, according to the national TV channel's official Twitter postings.
Foreign policy was much sidelined as the two candidates did not say a word on Syria or the "Arab Spring" even after the debate was extended by 15 minutes for the sake of further debates about international affairs.
Hollande did mention his plan, if elected, of withdrawing all French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, while Sarkozy upheld the 2013 timeline as agreed, arguing that it would be irresponsible to leave the country with jobs unfinished.
The two candidates, being scrutinized by dozens of TV cameras in the debate from every angle, had a history of several debates against each other but for much lower stakes.
The presidential debate, a classic arrangement in French politics, was held at a studio north of Paris. An estimated 20 million French voters watched the so-called "last duel" live broadcast on several TV channels in France.
Sarkozy had previously billed this debate as the "moment of truth" in the election race and even pushed for two more debates, only to be turned down by Hollande.
The latest setback for Sarkozy came on Tuesday when far-right leader Marine Le Pen refused to endorse him and announced she would cast a blank vote. But on Tuesday he also staged a huge rally that attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters at the Trocadero square.
According to latest polls on Wednesday, Hollande would win around 54 percent of the votes against Sarkozy's approximate 46 percent. He had also came out ahead of Sarkozy in the first round in mid April, making him the first incumbent president to be defeated by a challenger.
Following the end of Wednesday night's debate as a climax ahead of Sunday's final polling, the presidential campaign should come to an official end at midnight on Friday.