In Paris, at least 400,000 people took to the streets this May Day to chant “Down with Le Pen!” and rally against his anti-immigration platform. In several other cities across France, the turnout topped 900,000, according to media reports.
There have been numerous protests since April 21, when Le Pen finished a surprising second to Chirac in the first round of elections. Le Pen has been convicted of anti-Semitism and once called Nazi gas chambers a “detail in the history of World War II.”
Today’s demonstrations were further spurred by a pro-Le Pen rally in Paris earlier in the day. During the rally, Le Pen laid a bouquet of flowers at a statue of Joan of Arc who symbolizes French resistance against foreign intruders to Le Pen’s National Front party.
Le Pen blames immigration for high rates of crime and unemployment in France. The far-right leader favors pulling France out of the European Union, tightening border patrols and deporting all illegal immigrants.
In a speech Le Pen predicted an “electoral earthquake” in the final runoff against conservative incumbent President Jacques Chirac on May 5. Chirac is expected to easily win the election.
Police estimate the pro-Le Pen crowd at 10,000 to 12,000 people.
President Chirac appealed for a peaceful protest saying that violence would only serve his opponent.
French police were on high alert and at least 3,500 police, in both riot gear and plain-clothes, were deployed in Paris alone. The demonstrations were the largest in France since the student demonstrations of 1968.
The United Nations recognizes the first of May as “International Labor Day.” Throughout Europe, many cities were on guard against violent protests against capitalism and labor policies.
President Chirac participated in the traditional May Day ceremony at the Elysee palace in Paris.