PARIS - Politics, personality, and ability to stay cool were all fair game last night as Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal lit into each other for 21/2 hours on French television in the only face-to-face encounter between the final two presidential candidates.
In a format that allowed far more drama and confrontation than the staid American presidential debates, the encounter gave an estimated 20 million viewers the campaign's most intimate glimpse of the candidates who will be on the ballot Sunday.
The most dramatic exchange came when Sarkozy, a conservative who is leading in the polls, ordered Royal, a Socialist, to "calm down" after she accused him of "political immorality" during an exchange about services for disabled schoolchildren.
"No, I will not calm down," Royal shot back, her voice strained. "I'm very angry. Even when I'm president, I will get angry."
Sarkozy pounced: "You're getting upset very easily, and you lose your cool very easily. As president of the republic, the president has to assume very heavy responsibilities."
"I didn't lose my cool," Royal snapped.
For Eric Dupin, a political analyst at the Political Studies Institute in Paris, it was the turning point of the debate.
"People expected Sarkozy to lose his temper, but she did," Dupin said. "A political leader cannot show anger like she did. . . . We've never seen that before."
"Sarkozy proved he is an experienced politician," Dupin said. "Royal showed that she's got character but not the experience."
How that will influence voters is unclear. While Royal was short on details, she was long on passion. And while Sarkozy sometimes seemed lost in specificity, Royal stayed focused on big goals and guiding principles, even if she could not always explain how she would make things happen.
The debate centered as much on the clash of personalities as the contrasts in their politics. Sarkozy, one of the country's best political orators, tried to convince skeptical voters that he was not as authoritarian and divisive as many believe. Royal, who has capitalized on her youthful looks and femininity, attempted to reassure doubters that she is presidential and competent.