PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy will go into a televised election debate against Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande as a "challenger" as he battles to avoid defeat in Sunday's runoff poll, a senior aide said.
The conservative president and his centre-left rival have been at each other's throats for months, with Sarkozy accusing Hollande of being incompetent and a liar, and Hollande calling the incumbent a "failed president" and "a nasty piece of work".
Trailing Hollande despite an aggressive campaign, Sarkozy has billed Wednesday's debate - to be shown on the main terrestrial channels TF1 and France 2 and on 24 hour news channels, reaching around half of France's 44.5 million voters - as a "moment of truth".
His aides said Sarkozy would spend most of the day holed up at home preparing for the two-and-a-half hour verbal duel against the Socialist who, despite his bland manner, is a quick-witted debater.
"Nicolas Sarkozy is approaching this debate as a challenger and he will undoubtedly take risks," said former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a senior figure in Sarkozy's ruling UMP party and advisor to the president. "It will be very intense."
Blamed for unemployment running at a 12-year high and widely disliked because of his brash personal style, Sarkozy is the most unpopular president to run for re-election and the first in modern history to lose a first-round vote to a challenger.
He would become the first president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1981 to fail in a bid for re-election.
Sarkozy began campaigning weeks before Hollande, vowing to boost industrial competitiveness, hold referendums on policy, crack down on tax exiles and make the unemployed retrain as a condition of receiving benefits.
More recently, he has shifted to the right in an attempt to court the near one-in-five National Front voters, vowing to cut immigration and threatening to pull out of Europe's border-free Schengen zone unless European Union borders are strengthened.
He has also warned that Hollande's tax-and-spend plans would sow economic catastrophe.
"Sarkozy needs to swing 1.5 million people to his side. It won't be easy, but that doesn't mean it's impossible," Bernard Sananes, head of the CSA polling institute, told BFM TV.
Recent polls have shown Sarkozy making up ground but still give Hollande a comfortable lead. A survey by pollster BVA published on Wednesday showed the gap narrowing by 1 point to 7 percentage points, with the Socialist ahead on 53.5 percent to Sarkozy's 46.5.
Hollande, who has worried some investors with his plans to raise taxes on large corporations and slap a 75 percent levy on high earners, has denied Sarkozy's taunt that he was a "dodger" for turning down a challenge to hold two extra debates.
"Let him come to the debate this evening and pose his questions," Hollande told BFM TV. "Frankly, the only question which needs to be asked is, do the French want the same failed policies of the last five years? Rising unemployment, weak growth, debts and deficits."
Sarkozy received a setback on Tuesday when far-right leader Marine Le Pen - who shocked France by coming third with 18 percent in the first round - refused to endorse him. At a rally in Paris, she vowed to cast a blank vote and told her 6.5 million voters to follow their own conscience.
A TNS Sofres poll published on Wednesday found 37 percent of people were in agreement with the National Front's positions, the highest level since 1984. Just over half of those questioned said there were too many immigrants in France, as Sarkozy has repeatedly said during recent weeks.
The debate comes as the Presidential race has been clouded by mudslinging and sleaze allegations, with Sarkozy filing a lawsuit against a news website that alleged Muammar Gaddafi's government sought to fund his 2007 campaign.
The Socialists have sought to capitalise on Sarkozy's high personal rejection rates and a reputation as a "bling bling" president, dating back to an ill-judged celebration with wealthy businessmen in an exclusive Paris restaurant after he won power in 2007.
"It's a clash of styles: their personalities are very different," Hollande's campaign manager, Pierre Moscovici, told Public Senat. "On the one hand a president who divides ... and on the other a man who wants to bring the country together."
A formidable political brawler, Sarkozy is convinced he can swing things in his favour on Wednesday evening by portraying Hollande as lacking in experience and economic credibility.
"Sarkozy is very combative, very pugnacious. He can be quite hard with his interlocutors and Hollande has to avoid being browbeaten," said Christopher Bickerton, an associate professor of international relations at the Sciences Po university.
Twenty TV cameras will scrutinise the two rivals from every angle as they sit 2.5 metres (8 feet) apart across a table.
The two sides have agreed on logistical details, down to the temperature of the TV studio - between 19 and 20 degrees Celsius (66 to 68 Fahrenheit) and chairs that can be adjusted for height. The debate starts at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT) and, monitored by a large wall clock, must not run over 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Sarkozy and Hollande both deny having trained with coaches or held dress rehearsals with sparring partners. They have come face to face several times, notably in a 1999 debate on Europe.
"I have no coach, just myself," Hollande said on Tuesday. "It's not a boxing match or a wrestling match."
Sarkozy - who has betrayed the stress he is under by seeming irritable and aggressive in some recent appearances - intends to "flush" the seemingly unflappable Hollande "out of the woods", an aide told French media this week.
The only previous debate considered to have swung a tight French election was in 1974, when Valery Giscard d'Estaing emerged stronger for hitting Francois Mitterrand with the snub: "You do not have the monopoly of the heart."
Mitterrand beat Giscard d'Estaing seven years later and delivered a crushing line in a 1988 debate with conservative challenger Jacques Chirac, then his prime minister.
When Chirac, a few years his junior, said: "Allow me to say that this evening, I am not the prime minister and you are not the president, we are two equal candidates. You will therefore permit me to call you Mr. Mitterrand," the Socialist replied jauntily: "But you are quite right, Mr. Prime Minister."
(Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage, John Irish, Pauline Mevel and Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Giles Elgood and David Holmes)
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