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Million Rally Against Le Pen in France

Wednesday, 01 May 2002 12:00 AM

Paris was the nucleus of the massive demonstrations. Pro- and anti-Le Pen activists held rival protests in different parts of the city.

Le Pen, the 73-year-old head of the extremist National Front Party, faces "conservative" President Jacques Chirac (described by Fox News Channel as to the left of Al Gore) in a run-off presidential vote Sunday. He finished a surprising second place in the first round of elections April 21, ahead of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Thousands of Le Pen supporters marched down the Rue de Rivoli waving French flags, and chanting "Le Pen, President."

Le Pen's National Front, which initially counted on 40,000 to 100,000 supporters for its rally, bused in thousands to Paris. The party said 100,000 people turned up to support him in Paris; police put the numbers at about 10,000. By midday, his supporters packed the Place de l'Opera, where the former paratrooper gave a rousing speech denouncing the French political hierarchy, and particularly his rival, Chirac.

"They growl, condemn, denounce in the name of the republic honest citizens who voted National," Le Pen thundered, as marchers cheered and whistled. "They did this because ... they have betrayed and sold out to euro-globalization. They have delivered immigration and unemployment and insecurity. They stink of corruption."

At the margins of the gathering, 71-year-old Lucien Gros, a retired apple farmer from Provence, clutched a French flag as he watched Le Pen hold forth on a giant screen.

"I'm here to support him," Gros said. "What's happening in France is intolerable. They're killing police in their stations. Immigration is a big problem. People are behaving like cowboys."

Nearby, 23-year-old Norman Mechin of Lyon also said he was a staunch supporter of Le Pen.

"He stands a really good chance of winning the elections," predicted Mechin, who sported a shaved head and a black leather jacket with "Extreme Right is Hyper Cool" emblazoned in green.

"French people are sick of being swindled by the politicians and the immigrants," Mechin said. "Nobody is allowed to say what they think here. This is not a democracy."

Le Pen's strong showing has shocked France, prompting debate and hand wringing, and mass demonstrations across the country over the past week. The National Front leader amassed almost 17 percent of the vote in the first round, two points ahead of his 1995 score, and only three points behind front-runner Chirac.

Among other campaign promises, Le Pen wants to stop immigration, take France out of the European Union and end its use of the new euro currency.

In Paris, 3,500 police and security forces were on duty Wednesday to avert potential scuffles and violence between pro- and anti-Le Pen demonstrators. But most of the demonstrations appeared to take place calmly.

Elsewhere in the city, Parisians sipped coffee at brasseries and caught sun that briefly peeked through scudding clouds. Vendors sold the traditional May Day lilies-of-the-valley from street corners.

Less than two miles away from Le Pen's rally, anti-Le Pen demonstrators packed the Place de la Republique on the city's Right Bank, amid vans blaring world music and stalls selling hot dogs and grilled sausages. Their number was estimated at 400,000, Radio France reported. Nationwide, the figure was 1.3 million, the interior ministry said.

Algerian Nadia Gweda, 18, watched the spectacle with her aunt and her mother. All three clutched anti-Le Pen signs.

"We're here because Le Pen says all foreigners must leave France," said Gweda, whose family moved to Paris from the eastern Kabylia region of Algeria a year ago.

Gweda's mother, Malika, wearing a traditional long gown and head scarf, said in Arabic that she was "afraid" of Le Pen.

Lin Yin Long, from the eastern Chinese city of Wen Zen, was also at the Place de la Republique with his friends.

"I'm here because I love France," said Lin in halting French. "And I'm afraid of Le Pen."

As trade union members marched around the square, and Trotskyists pegged Marxist banners to polls, high school student Paul Kista waited for the largest, midafternoon demonstration from the Place de la Republique to Place de la Nation.

"French policy has turned racist, not the French," said Kista, 20, who voted for Green Party candidate Noel Mamere in the first round of elections. "Le Pen didn't become popular all by himself. Politicians from the left and the right helped him."

Police estimated 900,000 protesters demonstrated against Le Pen in cities and towns outside Paris Wednesday. At least three mass demonstrations took place in Paris.

Political leaders from both the left and right are calling on French citizens to vote for Chirac, of the Rally for the Republic Party, in the second round of elections.

Even far right leaders elsewhere in Europe have expressed skepticism, if not downright hostility to the National Front leader.

Le Pen's May Day march amounts to his first major public showing since the first round. He has scheduled a second gathering in the southern city of Marseille today.

Until now, Le Pen has confined his campaigning to media interviews offering a controlled atmosphere and a good forum for the energetic, combative orator.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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Paris was the nucleus of the massive demonstrations. Pro- and anti-Le Pen activists held rival protests in different parts of the city. Le Pen, the 73-year-old head of the extremist National Front Party, faces conservative President Jacques Chirac (described by Fox News...
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