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Thursday, 25 April, 2002, 22:26 GMT 23:26 UK
French protests gather pace
Demonstrators in Toulouse
The demonstrations are expected to climax on 1 May
The biggest protests yet against far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen have swept France, with crowds across the country estimated at up to 250,000.

Demonstrations began on Sunday night - after Mr Le Pen's shock success in the first round of the French presidential election - and show no sign of abating.

French President Jacques Chirac, who faces Mr Le Pen in a run-off on 5 May, called on Thursday for national unity.

He urged voters to reject the "demons of extremism" and defend "the republican ideal" and democracy at a campaign rally near the southern city of Lyon.
President Chirac
Chirac, 69, is seeking a second term

As protests swelled, Mr Le Pen issued a statement claiming he was the victim of a campaign of hatred and lies, and accusing Mr Chirac of starting the "hate demonstrations".

He also criticised "scandalous interference" by European leaders, following strong reactions by Britain and Germany to his anti-immigrant platforms.

Click here for the election results

Marches, meetings and teach-ins took place in at least 80 towns and cities as protesters urged a massive protest vote against Mr Le Pen on 5 May.

Many French universities declared Thursday a day without classes, so students could debate the political situation.

The biggest crowds of demonstrators - 15,000-strong - were seen in the university city of Nantes, but there were also protests in Brest, Vannes, Lille, Lyon, Grenoble, Toulouse, Cannes and Ajaccio.

Some brandished placards describing Mr Le Pen as "fascist" and shouted slogans such as "Vote to stop Le Pen" and "We're all children of immigrants".

Launch new window : Voters' voices
In pictures: French voters have their say

Human rights groups and political parties have issued a joint statement calling for massive protests this weekend in all major French cities.

The statement said Mr Le Pen's presence in the presidential runoff was "shameful".

Jean-Marie Le Pen
Jean-Marie Le Pen
  • Born in 1928 in the Brittany town of La Trinite-sur-Mer
  • Set up the National Front in 1972
  • In 1987 he described the Holocaust as a "detail of history"
  • Wants 200,000 new prison places, the abolition of inheritance tax and a renegotiation of European treaties

      Click here for a full profile

  • "It is a threat to public liberty, social rights, the rights of women and the rights of immigrants," the statement said.

    The biggest protest, however, is expected on Wednesday - 1 May - as Mr Le Pen's National Front holds a traditional march in Paris honouring Joan of Arc, and his opponents demonstrate on the other side of the river Seine.

    Police fear clashes between the two sides and have made plans for about 3,000 officers - including 1,600 riot police - to be on hand.

    President Jacques Chirac, who will be Mr Le Pen's opponent in the 5 May election, called on Wednesday for calm on 1 May.

    "Be determined in rejecting the extreme right, but in a dignified and reasonable way," he said.

    One anti-Le Pen group has said its protest will begin on a central Paris bridge, where on 1 May 1995 a Moroccan was killed by a group of National Front supporters.

    Click here to return

    The BBC's Jon Sopel
    "Le Pen... insisted he was every bit as tolerant as Tony Blair"
    See also:

    24 Apr 02 | UK Politics
    Le Pen policies 'repellent' - Blair
    22 Apr 02 | Europe
    French election in quotes
    22 Apr 02 | Africa
    Le Pen vote alarms Africa
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