Le Pen's foot soldiers on best behaviour for rally

The Far Right
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Just as the National Front rally was breaking up in the Place de L'Opéra yesterday lunchtime, a young black man and his white girlfriend attempted to push politely through the crowd. A Jean-Marie Le Pen supporter – a shaven-headed, young man with a T-shirt slogan reading, "You are screwing France, get out" – shouted something insulting to the black man's back.

The black passer-by turned around and yelled: "Aren't you ashamed to use our French language in that way. I'm French too." Other Lepenistes began to mock his African accent. A group of ten, shaven-headed with scarves pulled over their faces, surrounded the young man and his girlfriend, who burst into tears.

Three National Front stewards, equally shaven-headed, wearing black jackets and black glasses, came up and hustled the young couple to safety.

This was an isolated incident. The march through Paris by about 20,000 Le Pen supporters – 10,000 according to the police, 120,000 according to Mr Le Pen – passed off without serious trouble.

The rally, to celebrate Joan of Arc Day, is an annual event. The French far-right leader's appearance in the second round of the French presidential election is not. The National Front, which had hoped for a much bigger turn-out, ordered its more extreme supporters and hangers-on to be on their best behaviour yesterday. No racist chanting, please. Leave your uniforms and Nazi insignia at home.

Michel, 28, a young man from the Paris suburbs who had attended the previous 14 annual, May Day NF rallies said: "We are not racists. We are nationalists. We are on the side of France. Race does not matter."

To some NF supporters, maybe not. To many others, it clearly does. One group of Le Pen sympathisers marched jubilantly along the Rue de Rivoli beside the Louvre chanting: "Sans pitié. Sans pitié. Brulez les sans-papiers" (Show no pity. Show no pity. Burn the illegal immigrants).

As always with a National Front crowd, there were many types and tribes: the Catholic fundamentalist families dressed in expensive coats and smartly creased trousers; a young man with a tattoo on his neck, which read in English: "Teddy boys never die"; the frail old women with poodles chanting "La France aux Français" (France for the French).

A 50-something teacher of French from Rennes – "I can't give my name. The education service is in the hands of the leftists. They will have me thrown out" – was waving a flag with the royalist fleur de lys and the fundamentalist catholic symbol, a heart with a crucifix growing out of it.

"Le Pen wants to save the French nation from communism and from dilution in Europe," he said. "He is not racist. We are not racists. We want only to rescue and promote France, and all French people, whatever their race. He cannot win on Sunday but he has, in one sense, already won.

"In French politics, there will be a before Le Pen and an after Le Pen. He has awoken the conservative and national conscience of the nation."

Mr Le Pen gave a barn-storming speech for 60 minutes in the open air – a tour de force for a man of 73. He pursued his claim to be the man of the people (although greater numbers turned out for anti-Le Pen demonstrations yesterday) fighting against the corrupt, cosmopolitan establishment .

"Betrayal", "soul", "destiny", "conspiracy" are the words that pepper his speeches. President Jacques Chirac, his opponent in Sunday's deciding round of the election, was condemned as part of a "cosmopolitan elite" who had conspired with the left, with Freemasons, "soviet bishops" and "rootless capital" (Le Pen code words for Jewish influence) to "exclude the French within their own country".