Over 17 million viewers watched mesmerised as Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande slugged it out in the French presidential debate held on 2nd May, just four days before next Sunday's election. And though both contenders landed a series of effective punches — Mr. Hollande on Mr. Sarkozy's economic record, the latter on Mr. Hollande's stand on immigration, neither man emerged a clear and undisputed victor.

Sitting President Nicolas Sarkozy desperately needed to knock out his adversary if he is to have a fighting chance of turning next Sunday's almost certain defeat into victory. But France's outgoing conservative President failed to inflict the clinching knock-out punch. Indeed, for most of the debate he was dominated by Mr. Hollande who gave the lie to detractors who have used epithets like “milk pudding” or “eiderdown” to describe the usually mild-mannered Socialist challenger.

Ever since the tradition of presidential debates started in 1974, this was without a doubt the scrappiest, most nasty, intense and vitriolic exchange between finalists that French viewers have seen. Political observers and the press were categorical: Neither man won an outright victory but Mr. Hollande managed to appear presidential, held his own and often had Mr. Sarkozy on the back foot. Overall, on points, victory was accorded to Francois Hollande.

Mr. Sarkozy now has another 36 hours of campaigning to win over the 6.4 million voters who voiced their support for the extreme right leader Marine Le Pen.

“This was a new Hollande we saw — someone who was clear about his objectives, someone who had already donned the mantle of President. Clearly, Mr. Sarkozy underestimated his foe. He did not expect Mr. Hollande to remain so unfazed, calm and yet ready to pounce and was taken by surprise. Also Mr. Sarkozy regrettably often took to name calling, accusing Mr. Hollande of being a liar and a small-time peddler of “calumny”. That was pointless. Mr. Sarkozy in his desperation also pointed fingers at France's 5 million Muslims saying immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, was a problem. Of course he was wooing the National Front and that lowered the level of debate. “It is a shame, because I think that Mr. Hollande will deepen the country's deficit and will be bad for France,” Alain-Gerard Slama, a commentator for the pro-Sarkozy right wing Le Figaro newspaper told The Hindu.

Renaud Dély of the left leaning weekly The Nouvel Observateur said: “Mr. Sarkozy, rather than Mr. Hollande, is the cause of the former's defeat. The outgoing President is so hyperactive and narcissistic, has such little control that he lets fly, becomes insulting at the drop of a hat and now he is paying the price since his supporters are deserting in droves. Mr. Sarkozy and his character flaws are the architects of what looks like inevitable defeat.”

With the smell of defeat in the air, Mr. Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party is already beginning to show cracks. Former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has started what he calls a “humanist” movement and other currents are likely to emerge. On the other side, speculation has already begun as to who will be the next socialist Prime Minister.

More In: International | News