Story Highlights• French presidential candidates face off in last debate before Sunday vote
• Debate seen as crucial platform in a personality-driven election
• Sarkozy's temper thought an issue; he doesn't want to seem too aggressive
• Royal was expected to focus the debate on personality and turn on her charm
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(CNN) -- Months of tense campaigning came to a head Wednesday when the top two contenders in the French presidential election went head to head in a final televised debate.
Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, the underdog in opinion polls, immediately attacked Nicolas Sarkozy for the record of the outgoing rightist government, in which he served as both interior minister and finance minister.
"You are in part responsible for the situation in which France finds itself today," Royal said in her opening remarks, according to Reuters, accusing the government of failing to tackle unemployment and overseeing an increase in street crime.
Sarkozy started by hitting a main theme of his campaign, in which he has tried to present himself almost as an opposition leader, promising to break with the past if he takes over.
"We cannot continue to do politics as before," he said in his opening remarks in the debate, Reuters reported.
Sarkozy has led the pack throughout the presidential race, while Royal has gained steady momentum, often targeting her opponent with harsh criticism.
The televised debate gives both candidates an opportunity for a final face-off and gives the French voting public -- many still undecided -- a chance to compare their options side by side before going to polls again on Sunday to pick their new leader.
The debate was expected to pull in a wide audience, nearly half the country's 44.5 million voters, ahead of the clinching second round of voting, a Reuters report said.
Style and personality
This year's presidential campaign has been as much about a candidate's likability and personality as it has about political issues.
CNN's European political editor, Robin Oakley, said the race could come down to whose personality is more appealing.
Many voters find Sarkozy "scary and authoritarian," Oakley said, adding that the conservative front-runner will have to keep a handle on his temper during the debate so that he does not come across as too aggressive.
Sarkozy's harsh personality is one of his drawbacks, Oakley said, adding that it suits Royal to focus the debate around personality as much as possible, because her plans for reforming France are mild at best.
"It's a deliberate socialist tactic," Oakley said.
Royal has tried to sell herself as a strong female candidate with the right attitude to get France back on track without "brutalizing" the country and ruffling too many feathers. She's also been put down for a series of foreign policy blunders that made her look too inexperienced to lead the nation.
Tough guy Sarkozy has vowed to bring swift and effective change and impose more stringent immigration policies. But he has struggled to shake the specter of criticism he received as interior minister for his handling of the 2005 youth riots in Paris.
Royal was expected to bring her charm to the podium to counter her opponent's leadership experience.
But Oakley said Sarkozy has also turned up the charm in recent days, when he said Royal should not be reduced to her femininity, "great though it is."
Sarkozy has said he has a great deal of respect for his opponent. Oakley said how much respect he shows Royal in tonight's debate is something to keep an eye on.
Former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, author of "You Don't Have a Monopoly of the Heart," said the debate would be decisive. In the 1974 presidential election, d'Estaing debated rival Francois Mitterrand.
"I think I was elected because of this debate," he said on RTL radio Wednesday, according to Reuters.
Analysts have questioned whether the debate will have much impact on undecided voters. But with an estimated 20 million viewers, the kind of audience usually seen only in World Cup soccer finals, the pressure is on for the candidates.
Audiences will be anticipating a keenly fought contest and watching for the kind of one-liner or gaffe that can be remembered for years afterwards, Reuters said.
"Every moment is decisive, but I'm not one of those people who dramatize the significance of the debate to that point," Sarkozy said on France Inter radio, downplaying the anticipated encounter.
The debate is being moderated by two of France's most prominent journalists. Every detail was mapped out after intensive consultation with the campaign teams.
The French citizenry has followed this year's election with exceptional interest. With a record number of voters going to polls in the first round on April 22, this has been one of the most popular elections in decades.
Sarkozy was expected to be a tough competitor. He is considered to be one of the most forceful speakers in French politics and polls show more people think he has the stature of a president. But the one-time protege to outgoing president Jacques Chirac can be unpredictable.
Royal hopes to convince the voting public she has what it takes to lead the nation.
"Television debate: Royal stakes everything against Sarkozy," business daily Les Echos headlined its front page.
Sarkozy is seen as more economically liberal and supporters appreciate his tough stance on crime and illegal immigration as well as his defense of a "silent majority" of hardworking French. Left-leaning critics see him as a dangerous authoritarian to be hated and feared.
Royal is trying to become the nation's first female president. By combining left-wing economic policies and traditional social values, sprinkled with a maternal touch, Royal is seen as more sympathetic to everyday concerns. But missteps on the international arena have prompted her to be labeled a lightweight.
The latest opinion poll on Wednesday confirmed Sarkozy's lead over Royal, giving him 52 percent support against 48 percent for Royal, according to Reuters.
Jerome Sainte-Marie of pollsters BVA, who carried out the survey, said neither had yet established a clear lead as the candidate best representing change or the candidate best able to rally France.
The gap between them was slightly smaller than in a previous survey, taken Monday, which showed Sarkozy at 53 percent and Royal at 47 percent.
That poll followed a debate between Royal and Francois Bayrou, the centrist who finished third in the first round and whose 7 million voters could prove key to deciding the race.
Reuters contributed to this report.