Chirac, Le Pen Move Out of Limelight on Eve of French Presidential Vote

Campaigning has ended and France entered a political quiet period Saturday with just one day left before a presidential runoff to decide whether incumbent Jacques Chirac or ultra-right rival Jean-Marie Le Pen leads the country for the next five years.

The two candidates officially stopped campaigning at midnight Friday, as is the custom in France, with Chirac urging voters to reject the anti-foreigner views of his rival and Le Pen predicting that the vote will be manipulated.

The next official appearances of Chirac and Le Pen are not expected until early results emerge at 8 p.m. local time on Sunday.

Polls show that the 69-year-old conservative Chirac will sweep the Sunday election with overwhelming support from voters of all political stripes, buoyed by a mass popular rejection of Le Pen's extremist platform.

The race has been one of the most divisive in modern French history. Le Pen's stunning qualification in the election's first round on April 21 prompted a wave of protests against him across the country.

Chirac, drawing on the enthusiasm of the anti-Le Pen demonstrators, has called on his countrymen to reject the far right.

"In the exceptional situation we find ourselves in today," Chirac told France-Inter radio Friday, "we must defend the values that all non-extremist Frenchmen have in common."

Chirac made a last-minute plea to left-leaning voters — who typically are opposed to him — urging them to "stand in the way" of Le Pen, whom he called "an extremely dangerous" man.

Le Pen, 73, who once called the Nazi gas chambers "a detail of history," says that if elected he will deport all illegal immigrants and assure French citizens priority in jobs, housing and social benefits. He says he will pull France out of the European Union and restore the franc as its currency.

In an interview Friday with CBS, Le Pen said his party "does not have anything in its program which could be considered as fascist."

"I love my country, but that doesn't mean I hate other countries. I don't have tendency to xenophobia. I am just a Francophile," he said.

Ahead of the Sunday's vote, Le Pen predicted foul play.

"We are going to witness an enormous enterprise of fraud," Le Pen told a news conference Friday, in remarks that appeared aimed at preparing his supporters for defeat.

As a purported example, Le Pen held up two ballots -- one for Chirac and one for himself. The one for the president was slightly whiter, which Le Pen said was an effort to make voting for him less desirable — if only subliminally.

Le Pen complained that his campaign posters were not being pinned up, that postal carriers were refusing to deliver his election manifesto to French households and that his supporters were being harassed.

He called it "a climate of totalitarianism" and said his campaign director would meet with election authorities to discuss those issues. Le Pen also indicated he might contest the election result if his performance appeared to be abnormally low.

A poll published Friday in daily Le Figaro indicated that Chirac would win between 75 and 82 percent of the vote and Le Pen would receive between 18 and 25 percent. The survey of 1,012 registered voters was conducted April 30-May 2 by the Ipsos polling agency.

Le Pen has been the object of nationwide protests since his surprising second-place finish in the April 21 first round, in which no candidate won a majority of the votes. The results qualified Le Pen for Sunday's runoff against Chirac and pushed Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of the running.

The near-daily street rallies against Le Pen came to a head on May Day, Wednesday, when well over a million people marched through the streets of France to show their opposition to the ultra-right leader. Some 10,000 people turned out for a pro-Le Pen rally in Paris.