Hollande fends off Sarkozy attacks

French president Nicolas Sarkozy has failed to deliver a knockout blow against leftist frontrunner Francois Hollande in their only head-to-head debate in France's presidential campaign, the last major hurdle just four days before Sunday's election finale.

Mr Hollande - an understated man whom many expected to wither under Mr Sarkozy's sharp attacks - stood his ground, surprising some observers and even himself.

However the much-awaited TV debate produced no outright winner, and appears unlikely to shake up the campaign.

The debate had shaped up as Mr Sarkozy's last stand and last chance to draw blood against Mr Hollande, and it quickly turned into a verbal slugfest that broke little new ground on substance but exposed big differences in style.

Mr Sarkozy, an America-friendly conservative who has linked up with German chancellor Angela Merkel to try to revive Europe's finances and economic prospects, came out slugging and sought to cast himself as the best man to keep France both decisive and competitive.

The incumbent president assailed Mr Hollande's plans to raise taxes and boost spending - repeatedly accusing him of lying.

"The job of president isn't a normal job and the situation we're in isn't normal," snapped Mr Sarkozy, riffing off of the Socialist Mr Hollande's promise to bring a "normal" presidency compared to the incumbent's high-energy tenure. "Your normalcy isn't up to the stakes."

But for Mr Hollande, the stakes boiled down to depicting presidential demeanour, and showing that he could hold his own against Mr Sarkozy - a long-time political nemesis whom he has faced in TV debates dating to the 1990s.

"Hollande held up well," political scientist and former pollster Stephane Rozes told France-3 TV, adding that he doesn't think the debate will "shake things up" ahead of Sunday's vote.

Mr Hollande said on France-3 television afterwards that he showed voters "what I was capable of". But he acknowledged: "I don't think this is a debate ... that could bring out new voters."