Hollande repeatedly using one of his campaign catchwords: like "unity" and "change" to stress the contrast between him and the divisive Sarkozy. Pollsters say the incumbent turned off a lot of voters early in his five-year term with his brash personal style. A stagnant economy made those troubles worse.
Sarkozy said he's being unfairly blamed for France's economic problems after years of crisis, and insisted he's not "the only guilty one."
"Mr. Sarkozy, you would have a hard time passing for a victim," replied Hollande. "It's never your fault. You always have a scapegoat. 'It's not me, it's the crisis that hit me.'"
Sarkozy said Hollande's economic plans would send France's debt through the roof and hurt the rest of Europe. The Socialist repeated his line that an euro-zone austerity package needs growth-minded policies, too.
Sarkozy stressed, again and again, Hollande's inexperience, and suggested the Socialist would not be able to handle Europe's debt crisis.
"We avoided the disappearance of Greece, that wasn't so easy. ... I'm not sure, Mr. Hollande, that you would have done much better."
Hollande fired back: "Europe isn't out of the woods. It is today confronted with a possible resurgence of the crisis with a generalized austerity, and I don't want that."
Hollande further criticized tax reforms under Sarkozy seen by leftists as too friendly to the rich. Sarkozy countered, "Saying that we offered gifts to the rich ... is slander. It's a lie."
At this, Hollande laughed.
Both the Socialists and conservatives have sought ways to lure voters who backed Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front party who won a stunning 18 percent of the first-round vote.
Sarkozy denounced those who compared him to France's Nazi collaborators because of his tough campaign rhetoric on immigrants.
"Borders are not a bad word," Sarkozy said about his calls to limit the number of immigrants France takes in.
Hollande, meanwhile, took a similar position to Sarkozy when it came to special treatment for France's large Muslim community.
He said he would not allow separate menus in public cafeterias or separate hours in swimming pools for men and women to satisfy Muslims' demands, and also said he would firmly support France's ban on the face-covering Islamic veils.
Sarkozy took a predator pose from the outset, leaning forward on the desk through much of the debate. Hollande frequently leaned back in his chair, raising his voice less often, and at one point even appeared to yawn.
Sarkozy's assertive posture, in another setting, could be seen as a good thing for a debate. But one of the things his critics dislike most about him is a personality seen as too aggressive, so it may not work in his favor.
The debate was preceded by the kind of dramatic build-up normally reserved for a heavyweight boxing championship, even though experts say past debates have never swung a French election, regardless of who comes off better in the televised showdown.
Sylvie Corbet, Thibault Leroux and Cecile Brisson in Paris contributed to this report.
- Calliop, Jag and Tintin: Here's a look at 20...
- Walmart, Kmart 'Layaway Angels' spreading...
- Little difference between PG-13 and R-rated...
- What you think of welfare program depends on...
- Many Mormon missionaries who return home...
- WestJet airline video goes viral as Santa...
- Better than a raise: The smallest thing you...
- Putin defends Russian conservative values
- Can Mandela's legacy revive the GOP? 32
- India government likely to review... 25
- What you think of welfare program... 25
- Health care debate about presidential... 24
- Health care signups increase to... 23
- Looking beyond the premium is a... 17
- Putin defends Russian conservative values 15
- Little difference between PG-13 and... 13