Le Pen polls send France into second nightmare week

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France is entering a week of living dangerously which could banish, or extend, its week-old political nightmare.

There are growing fears that the anger and frustration on the left, and jubilation, on the far right, generated by the electoral breakthrough of Jean-Marie Le Pen could lead to confrontation and violence when both sides march through Paris on Wednesday.

Opponents of Mr Le Pen, who now extend to almost every corner of French life from the Catholic Church to the Grand Slam-winning national rugby team are growing nervous that the second round of the presidential election next Sunday may fail to produce the sweeping anti-far right vote that they are calling for.

Although no one, not even the National Front, seriously fears a Le Pen victory, some analysts fear that abstentions on the left and a continuing protest vote by disaffected blue-collar workers could prove the polls wrong again and give the veteran far-right leader 30 per cent or more of the second round vote. This would throw the parliamentary elections in June, and the future course of French politics, into deep confusion.

The only opinion poll taken since the first round on Sunday last week gives Mr Le Pen 19 per cent of the vote, roughly what he scored in the first round, plus the votes of his renegadeformer number two, Bruno Mégret. If next Sunday's poll goes that way, talk of a France veering towards xenophobia and fascism would be placed in its proper context.

But opinion polls have consistently undercounted Mr Le Pen's score, so much so that one French polling organisation is refusing to conduct polls for publication in what it describes as "a volatile and fluid political climate". Mr Le Pen said in an interview at the weekend that he was aiming for "between 40 and 51 per cent of the vote and rather 51 than 40." He added that if he scored 30 per cent or less it would be a "crushing rejection".

Anti-Le Pen campaigners will hope to be able to remind him of his words on Sunday night. The great unknown is which cast of voters will turn out for the second round: the tens of thousands of voters broadly sympathetic to the left who failed to vote last week or the many disaffected on the right?

The other great danger this week is the possible confrontation of pro and anti-Le Pen marchers in Paris on Wednesday, 1 May. The National Front is hoping that 80,000 people (instead of the more normal 5,000) will attend its annual Joan of Arc day march and celebration in the centre of the capital.

The equally traditional trades union march for labour day has been turned into an anti-far right protest, which could attract more than 200,000 people.

French police fear that breakaways from either march might cause trouble. They are also dreading the security nightmare of a 90-minute open-air speech by Mr Le Pen in the Place de L'Opéra at lunch-time on Wednesday. The far-right leader's police bodyguard has been reinforced.

In the meantime, the mobilisation of almost all organisations and strands of French society and politics against Mr Le Pen continues.

At the weekend, the France rugby team issued a statement saying that 13 members of the squad were proud to to be "first, second or third-generation immigrants to France".

Mr Le Pen was also repudiated, not for the first time, by his original, political mentor, Pierre Poujade, the leader of an anti-tax revolt by shopkeepers and small businessmen in the 1950s.

Mr Poujade, 81, said that Mr Le Pen had always been "a liar" and was now "cynical enough to pose as the saviour of small people from his millionaire's château in Saint-Cloud".

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