Presidential race ends in vitriol and personal abuse

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The Independent Online

The two bitter rivals for the French presidency closed the tumultuous 2002 election campaign yesterday by firing new volleys of personal vitriol at each other.

"I have always been an enemy of the far-right leaders, almost a personal one," President Jacques Chirac told a youth meeting east of Paris. Mr Le Pen lashed out at a press conference against the "totalitarian climate" he said had taken over the country while warning of a "gigantic fraud" that would be perpetrated by the "Soviet-style establishment" tomorrow.

The last opinion poll to be published before today's eve of election moratorium showed President Chirac with a commanding lead (79 to 21 per cent) over his far-right rival, Jean-Marie Le Pen – a lead that has held steady.

Illustrating the transformation in the public since the far right's unexpected first-round success, the same poll also showed that 87 per cent of voters intended to vote tomorrow, almost 20 per cent more than the 69 per cent who had said they would vote three days before the first round. The record low first-round turn-out – 73 per cent – was one explanation frequently cited for the defeat of the Socialist candidate, the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin.

A large turn-out this time would probably favour Mr Chirac, as it suggests that the many Socialist voters who stayed at home on 21 April will turn out, however reluctantly, to help the Gaullist President "block" Mr Le Pen.

But public trust in opinion polls still lies shattered and few yesterday were prepared to predict the outcome. The professional pollsters were especially cautious, warning that the big unknown was the number of people who would go to the polling station but either not select a candidate or spoil their ballots.

The trepidation surrounding voters' intentions helped to explain a rush of 11th-hour appeals to voters – including from the two candidates – not just to go to the polls, but to cast their votes. Among the dozens of political activists, intellectuals and arts figures whose high-flown words occupied acres of space in the establishment press yesterday, the prevailing theme was still the shock of the "accident", "earthquake" or "nightmare" that propelled Mr Le Pen into the run-off.

New rallies were held last night in many of France's cities, most organised by the Socialist Party or groups on the left determined to maintain the momentum against Mr Le Pen. May Day witnessed some of the biggest political demonstrations in France for decades, with more than half a million joining the anti-Le Pen rally in Paris alone.

The rise of the National Front may be causing near-panic on the Left Bank of the Seine, around the elegant dinner tables of the 15th arrondissement and in many university canteens and common rooms. And there may be breast-beating among Socialists who neglected to vote last time around or "squandered" their "protest" vote.

But elsewhere, and especially in the east and south, there is a resentment at an establishment élite "which does not hear, let alone listen to what we have to say". The greater the number of erudite luminaries who have taken to the air waves and newspaper columns to dismiss far-right voters as "stupid", "ill-informed" or "mistaken", the greater these voters' resentment and determination to repeat the "mistake".

Tomorrow, these places in Paris, as well as the big cities of the east and south, such as Strasbourg, Marseilles, Nice and Montpellier, will be barometers of how deep such feelings run. A lacklustre final rally for Mr Le Pen in Marseilles, compared with Mr Chirac's rapturous 20,000 audience outside Paris, the million who marched on May Day, and the projected turn-out, all point to a landslide victory for Mr Chirac. But even a landslide will leave many people still feeling discontented and unheard in its wake.