La France vs Le Pen

More than one million people protest against the far-right leader
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France was engulfed yesterday by a human tidal wave of peaceful protest against the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

More than 400,000 people gathered in Paris, and more than 1,300,000 across France – from cities to the smallest towns and even villages – to decry the presence of the veteran National Front leader in the second round of the presidential election on Sunday.

The crowds in the capital were so enormous – 500,000-plus, organisers said, 400,000 according to the police – that there were fears for the safety of the protesters packed into the Place de la République and the Place de la Bastille. Many people fainted and had to be lifted to safety.

Although the march was organised by trade unions and anti-racist groups, it was by no means confined to theleft. Tens of thousands of Parisians, many of them in family groups, used their May Day holiday to protest, and possibly show their regret at having failed to vote in the first round of the election. The crowd was the largest seen for a May Day in Paris and the scale of the protests in 400 demonstrations across the country was "unprecedented", one senior police source said.

A National Front march through Paris earlier in the day, led and addressed by Mr Le Pen, was largely overshadowed. The NF claimed 100,000 people joined the march, which was nominally intended to commemorate Joan of Arc as a scourge of foreign invaders. The police gave the attendance as 10,000 and independent observers calculated that there were about 20,000 NF supporters – four times as many as last year.

Fears that fringe groups from the two demonstrations might clash or provoke battles with the police failed to materialise.

Mr Le Pen gave a violently worded open-air speech in the Place de L'Opéra, accusing President Jacques Chirac of being a "thief" who had "betrayed" France in a deliberate conspiracy to "submerge" the French nation in "colonial immigration". Mr Le Pen, 73, claimed to be leading an insurrection of the people against the "cosmopolitan" elite that had taken part in repeated acts of "treachery" against the very existence of France. But in terms of sheer numbers on the street yesterday, it was the French people who mounted an insurrection against Mr Le Pen.

Whether they will turn out in similar numbers to vote against Mr Le Pen on Sunday remains to be seen. Opinion polls have suggested President Chirac will be re-elected with at least 77 per cent of the vote but e-mail rumours have been sweeping France of "secret" intelligence service polls showing Mr Le Pen gaining 42 per cent.

The rumours have been officially denied, but France remains in a febrile, almost panicky mood, which perhaps explains the magnitude of the protests. The Ministry of the Interior put the total of anti-Le Pen demonstrators in provincial towns and cities at more than 900,000, dwarfing the record of 330,000 set last week.

There were marches by 51,000 people in Grenoble, 50,000 in Lyons, 45,000 people in Toulouse, 38,000 in Bordeaux, 30,000 in Marseilles, 23,000 in Montpellier, 20,000 in Rennes, 15,000 in Strasbourg, 11,000 in Nice and 11,000 in Brest.

The anti-racist group SOS Racisme said: "Le Pen has been beaten in the streets. Next Sunday, he will be beaten and marginalised in the ballot boxes."

One unknown is the impact of yesterday's anti-Le Pen protests on the millions of centre-right and undecided voters. There has been muttering that the left is trying to "steal" Mr Chirac's victory by turning Sunday's election into a referendum against Mr Le Pen. If the President becomes too associated with the left in the minds of some right-wing voters, they might swing towards the far right.

In London, at least 50 people were arrested in a series of violent clashes between riot police and protesters during an otherwise peaceful day of anti-capitalist demonstrations.