PARIS (Reuters) - French conservative Nicolas Sarkozy extended his lead after a television debate with Socialist rival Segolene Royal and stayed on course for victory in Sunday’s election, opinion polls showed on Thursday.
A poll for the Opinionway institute showed 53 percent of viewers found Sarkozy more convincing during the sometimes fiery debate, against 31 percent who judged Royal better.
A separate survey by the same polling organization gave Sarkozy, who has come out on top in over 100 opinion polls since the start of the year, an eight point lead with 54 percent support, versus 46 percent for Royal.
But with just over two days left until voting begins on Sunday morning, neither candidate relented. Both were back on the campaign trail on Thursday evening, with Sarkozy hammering his favorite themes of security and pride in being French.
“I want to be able to talk about the nation without being called a nationalist,” he told a rally in the southern city of Montpellier. “I want to be able to talk about authority without being called an authoritarian.”
Media commentators generally judged Wednesday night’s debate a draw after a combative Royal came out fighting from the start, landing several blows but failing to dent Sarkozy’s aura of competence and sometimes appearing bad tempered herself.
With recent surveys showing as many as 88 percent of voters have made up their minds before the deciding ballot on Sunday, commentators generally believed the debate would only confirm opinions that people already held.
And after failing to turn around Sarkozy’s lead in the debate watched by more than 20 million people — over half the French electorate — Royal has a mountain to climb.
“To get back to his level, Segolene Royal would have had to achieve the impossible,” conservative daily Le Figaro said.
“But we’re a long way from that.”
Royal received implicit backing from centrist Francois Bayrou, who won nearly 7 million votes in the first round of the election. He was quoted in the daily Le Monde as saying he would not vote for Sarkozy.
The left-leaning newspaper also gave her a cautious endorsement itself, criticizing Sarkozy’s “vengeful” conception of history and saying she would be able to renew the left in France if she won.
But many ordinary voters believed she had not done enough to shed an image of fuzzy inconsistency that has clung to her throughout the campaign after a series of gaffes that have been highlighted strongly in the media.
“Royal was much too vague. Sarkozy pressed her well on it and I felt he dominated at the finish,” said Mathieu Cariteau, a 21 year-old student in Paris.
Sarkozy, a right-wing former interior minister and the favorite of financial markets, has hammered young hoodlums, illegal immigrants and enthused supporters with his attacks on the left wing protesters of May 1968.
Hated and feared as a dangerous authoritarian by many on the left, he has nonetheless been consistently rated the more “presidential” of the two candidates by most voters.
But Royal was not giving up.
“We have two days left, don’t break up my campaign team. Keep convincing people around you, because you are my campaign team,” Royal told supporters in the northern city of Lille.
Additional reporting by Swaha Pattanaik, Crispian Balmer and Francois Murphy