In France, politics sometimes spills on to the streets, with unpredictable results. Even for France, this threatens to be an extraordinary – and potentially combustible – May Day.
In Paris alone, there could be 300,000 demonstrators on the streets, extending from the most extreme fringes of the race-baiting far right to the most undemocratic shores of the sanctimonious and anarchic far left.
Officially, both sides – supporters of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front leader, on the one hand, and a broad swath of anti-Le Pen protesters on the other – will be kept apart, in place and time. Officially, the leaders of both sides are determined to avoid violence that could damage their cause when France votes in the second round of the presidential election on Sunday. Nevertheless police and leaders on both sides fear that breakaways from either march could cause mayhem in the centre of the capital, which will be largely closed for the 1 May public holiday. A splinter group of skinheads that detached itself from a similar National Front march on 1 May 1995 seized a young Moroccan passer-by, Brahim Bouraam, and drowned him in the Seine.
More than 4,000 police have been mobilised today. There are particular concerns at the security problems posed by Mr Le Pen himself, who will lead the far-right march with his wife, Jany, and then speak for 90 minutes in the open air at the Place de l'Opéra.
Mr Le Pen's state bodyguard has been doubled. The Ministry of the Interior fears that there may be a temptation for "un illuminé" (a crazy person) to reverse the plot of The Day of the Jackal, the Frederick Forsyth thriller about a far-right plot to shoot Charles de Gaulle in Paris.
Both of today's Paris marches were planned long before Mr Le Pen threw France into political crisis 10 days ago by taking second place in the first round of the presidential election, with just under 17 per cent of the vote. He is expected to lose the second round on Sunday to President Jacques Chirac by a wide margin.
Each 1 May since 1988, Mr Le Pen has led a march through Paris, from Châtelet to the Place de l'Opera, supposedly to mark Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) Day, which is actually 12 May. Normally he attracts 5,000 people; this year, he is forecasting 100,000 or more, including far-right delegations from other European countries and members of overtly neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups.
Jeanne d'Arc, a peasant girl pure of heart and blood who tried to boot foreigners (the English) out of France, has been an icon of the French far right since the 1920s. She was a symbol for French anti-Semitic movements before being kidnapped by Mr Le Pen.
In past years, the far-right leader has marched at the head of the parade, followed by a young woman dressed as Jeanne in full armour, riding a white horse. Actress and horse have been cancelled this year as part of Mr Le Pen's drive to make himself seem more of a mainstream, First World politician.
The anti-Le Pen demonstration, expected to be 200,000 strong, has been grafted on to the annual May Day parade through Paris by trade unions and left-wing parties, from the Place de la République to the Place de la Nation. There will be tens of thousands of young people from the spontaneous protests at schools and universities against the far-right, which have sprung up all over France in recent days. More menacingly, there will be far-left and anarchist groups and racially mixed bands of youths from the depressed inner suburbs of the capital.
Similar anti-NF labour marches are planned in almost every French city or large town.
Nominally, the two Paris marches should be completely separate. The NF march, in the city centre, is supposed to be over by 1pm. The anti-Le Pen march, in the eastern part of Paris, begins at 3pm.
If there is trouble, it will come most probably from the far-left elements in the afternoon demonstration, who may try to bait the NF supporters or the CRS riot police. A small commemoration of the death of the Moroccan skinhead victim in 1995 this morning will also be uncomfortably close to the NF march.
There are also fears – including at NF headquarters – over the intentions of some of the ultra far-right groups who will join Mr Le Pen's parade. These include Occident, a leather-clad, pagan, neo-Nazi group, and Unité Radicale, an overtly racist youth movement that has marched in past years, chanting anti-Semitic slogans. NF organisers have asked all participants this year to dress neatly, to abandon their inflammatory banners and leave their "sentimental medals from the second world war" (ie Nazi insignia) at home.
Instead of Joan of Arc on a white horse, Mr Le Pen will be followed by a group of black NF supporters from overseas departments and territories of France.
In Berlin last night, riot police clashed with hundreds of left-wing demonstrators when a supermarket was looted on the eve of May Day protests. Bottles and rocks were thrown at police after an open-air rock concert and several were hurt.Reuse content