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Francois Hollande builds on lead as French President Nicolas Sarkozy fails TV test

By John Lichfield in Paris

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was widely judged yesterday to have "lost" his bad-tempered TV debate with Socialist challenger Francois Hollande ahead of the final round of the presidential election.

Some political analysts said the frontrunning Mr Hollande "won" the debate simply because he did not lose it.

Others said the Socialist challenger had been more serene and persuasive and had come out on top in his sometimes violent verbal exchanges with Mr Sarkozy.

In an opinion poll by IFOP for 'Paris Match', 42pc of voters said Mr Hollande had been "more convincing", compared to 34pc for the president -- who trails Mr Hollande by five to eight points in polls before 45 million French voters choose their next president on Sunday.

There was another serious setback last night for Mr Sarkozy. The centrist leader Francois Bayrou, who scored 9pc in the 10-candidate, first round on April 22, announced he would vote for Mr Hollande on Sunday. He accused his former ministerial colleague Mr Sarkozy of "trampling the values of Gaullism and the French Republic" in his "headlong race" after far-right votes in recent days.

Mr Bayrou said he was giving no advice to his followers but he could not abstain at such a "dangerous" moment for France and Europe.

He would therefore vote for Mr Hollande as a "personal decision".

By campaigning on far-right themes such as immigration and the alleged threat to French identity from Islam, Mr Bayrou said Mr Sarkozy had "started a process" which could lead to "conflict between Frenchmen and Frenchmen".

Thirty parliamentarians and local politicians from Mr Bayrou's party, Le Mouvement Democrate, have also announced they are voting for Mr Hollande. They said Sarkozy's enthusiastic pursuit of far-right themes and voters had "disfigured France".

Mr Sarkozy, who trailed Mr Hollande 28.6pc to 27.06pc in the first round, needs a large transfer of both centrist and far-right votes to win on Sunday.

The nearly three-hour debate on Wednesday night attracted, at its peak, 17,800,000 viewers -- one in three of French voters.

But the aggressive tone of the debate may have angered undecided voters who wanted to hear solutions to their problems rather than a quarrel in their own living room.

Mr Hollande laid to rest suggestions he was "soft" but he scarcely expanded on his own, often vague, economic proposals.

"It was a draw but Mr Hollande started as favourite, so he remains the favourite," respected political commentator Francois Fressoz wrote in 'Le Monde'. (©Independent News Service)

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