PARIS (Reuters) - A televised debate between France's presidential rivals veered repeatedly into schoolyard bickering, with Socialist Francois Hollande mocking Nicolas Sarkozy for having no other defence than to keep calling him a liar.
Their body language in Wednesday's late-night showdown also betrayed the rivals' differing stress levels. Hollande, running well ahead in polls, was unflappable and poised while Sarkozy, battling to stave off defeat in Sunday's runoff, seemed twitchy, agitated and on edge.
As each disputed data cited by the other on everything from unemployment to immigration, Hollande accused Sarkozy of using the economic crisis as a permanent excuse for broken promises and of constantly pretending everything was rosy.
"You are always happy with yourself, it's just extraordinary. Whatever happens, whatever goes on, you are happy," Hollande quipped, after Sarkozy trumpeted the fact France had not fallen into recession since 2009.
"Mr Hollande, when you lie so shamelessly, do I have to accept it?" Sarkozy asked.
"For the moment, I've not said a thing that could justify that expression," Hollande replied.
"That's a lie!" Sarkozy said.
"What is?" asked Hollande.
"It's a lie."
"What is? What is?"
"It's a lie."
The back-and-forth was one of a series of clashes in a debate seen as Sarkozy's last chance to turn the odds in his favour, as voters punish him for a sickly economy and a brash personal manner.
Sarkozy is a formidable performer on stage and in debates, but the milder Hollande had already displayed an unexpected self-confidence and agility in a warm-up debate several weeks ago with Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, a veteran conservative.
After returning to a discussion over the French economy, the two rivals fell back into arguing just a few minutes later.
"In your desire to demonstrate what is not demonstrable, you are telling lies," Sarkozy told Hollande, gesticulating wildly while Hollande leaned back and played with a pen.
"There you go again," retorted Hollande, clearly enjoying himself as Sarkozy used the word liar for the umpteenth time. "It really seems to be a leitmotiv which is meant to hurt me but in your mouth it just seems like a habit."
When Sarkozy growled that Hollande was wrong to say he had eased taxes on the rich, the Socialist burst out laughing.
"Now you are adding slander to lies. You are unable to make an argument without being rude to your interlocutor," Hollande said.
The face-off between the combative Sarkozy and the relaxed Hollande was beamed live to roughly half France's 44.5 million voters. While both scored points on substance, Sarkozy's sharp tongue and edginess gave the unshakable Hollande an advantage.
Hollande only lost his cool a couple of times, even sounding jovial when he complained that Sarkozy allies had compared him to "every animal in the zoo".
There was a final moment of tension near the end of the two-hours-and-50-minute debate when Sarkozy said he would accept no morality lessons from Socialists who had been preparing to nominate Dominique Strauss-Kahn as their candidate until the former International Monetary Fund chief was arrested on rape allegations in New York last May.
"Ah," cried Hollande, turning a shade pinker as the two headed into a new spat, "I knew you would bring him up. It wasn't I who appointed him to the IMF."
Sarkozy, who nominated Strauss-Kahn for the job, retorted: "I knew him much less well than you."
We're sorry, this article is unavailable at the moment. If you wish to read this article, kindly contact our Customer Service team at 1-300-88-7827. Thank you for your patience - we're bringing you a new and improved experience soon!