PARIS – More than a million people demonstrated peacefully throughout France on Wednesday against Jean-Marie Le Pen, by far the largest turnout yet against the extreme-right leader since he qualified for Sunday's presidential runoff.
Even before a massive demonstration in Paris reached its peak, turnout in dozens of cities across France had reached nearly 900,000, according to the Interior Ministry and media reports.
That number did not take into account the large Paris protest, which already had massed 200,000 people and was expected to grow throughout the afternoon.
The anti-Le Pen rallies came after the right-wing leader held a much smaller demonstration in Paris to honor his party's heroine, Joan of Arc.
In an annual May Day event that took on added importance this year because of Le Pen's surprise candidacy, the candidate lay a bouquet of white flowers at a gilded statue of Joan of Arc riding a horse and waving the national flag.
For Le Pen's National Front party, the 15th century peasant girl who led a series of victories against the English is a symbol of French resistance against foreign "invaders."
In a speech, Le Pen promised an "electoral earthquake" in the election's final round, which pits him against conservative incumbent President Jacques Chirac, who is expected to win easily.
"The ground's going to crumble under their feet," he said.
Police and observers estimated the pro-Le Pen crowd at 10,000 to 12,000 people, though Le Pen's party claimed there were as many as 100,000 marchers.
Wednesday was clearly the climax of growing national protests against Le Pen. Some 3,500 police were deployed in Paris alone.
Ahead of the Paris protest, marches in other French cities drew tens of thousands. More than 50,000 people gathered in the southeastern city of Grenoble, while 45,000 demonstrated in Bordeaux, police said.
In Paris, good-natured crowds shouting "Down with Le Pen!" packed the streets near the site of the former Bastille prison. Many were singing or playing musical instruments, and a few people handed out sing-along lyrics mocking the far-right leader.
One demonstrator, 20-year-old Abdoul Fofana, said, "If Le Pen wins there will be a world war in France." Fofana, who came to France from Ivory Coast 10 years ago, was worried about Le Pen's fiercely anti-immigrant stance.
Some of the protests were combined with traditional May Day labor protests by unions. In Paris, 1,000 marchers from a labor union headed toward the center of town, protesting Le Pen, capitalism and fascism.
"The revolution has begun," read one of the placards held aloft. The owner of a dog had fitted out his pet with a sign bearing the message: "I eat fascists."
In May Day protests throughout Europe, merchants boarded up stores to guard against attacks by anti-capitalist demonstrators and riot police turned out in force. Police in Berlin used tear gas to quell overnight clashes with anarchists who threw rocks, set street fires and looted a supermarket.
At the pro-Le Pen demonstration in Paris, Maurice Dumontot, a 58-year-old retired police brigadier, called Le Pen "the Joan of Arc of modern times."
"Le Pen is the unloved candidate, but he's our only chance to put things in order to stop all the crime and have people respect our laws," he said.
A few people showed their anger at Le Pen's parade. One family, standing on a balcony above the marchers, hung out a banner that read, simply, "No."
In a radio interview before the march, Le Pen said he had taken "all possible precautions" to ensure his own safety and said he'd asked his security officers to eject any neo-Nazi supporters who might try to join in. There were, however, right-wing skinheads seen marching in the parade.
Le Pen has been convicted five times for racist and anti-Semitic remarks. In the most well-known case, he was fined about $20,000 for saying that the Nazi gas chambers were a "detail in the history of World War II."
He blames immigration, particularly from Muslim North Africa, for unemployment — which edged up in March to 9.1 percent — and for rising crime. His success in the April 21 first round of elections stunned France and most of its allies and neighbors.
Since Le Pen's surprise success in the April 21 first round, the nationalist leader has complained he has been a "victim of a campaign of hate and lies." His daughter, also a National Front politician, said the march was the "proper response" to the wave of anti-Le Pen street protests that have swept France.
"The problem is not the demonstrations, it's the defamation, the slander and the insults that people shout," Marine Le Pen told The Associated Press. "It's shameful and scandalous."
Chirac on Tuesday appealed for calm at the protests, saying violence would only play into the hands of his rival.
"In a democracy, political action doesn't take place in the streets ... It takes place in the ballot box," Chirac said in an interview Tuesday on RTL radio.
On a bridge over the Seine, about 1,000 people honored the memory of a Moroccan man who was drowned by National Front supporters during a rally on May 1, 1995. A group of skinheads at the rally pushed the man, Brahim Bouarram, off the bridge.
The far-right leader wants to pull France out of the European Union and return to the franc, the currency abandoned in favor of the euro at the start of this year, as well as deport all illegal immigrants and tighten border controls.