With a week to go to the second round of France's presidential election, tens of thousands of people were expected to take to the streets of Paris for a new demonstration against the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The march, organized by around 60 left wing organizations, human rights groups, political parties and trade unions, was to leave the Place de la Republique on the capital's right bank at around 3.00 p.m. (1300 GMT).
Other demonstrations were planned in cities round the country. In the southern town of Montauban around 1,000 people marched Saturday morning, chanting, "Montauban, awake! Fascism will not pass!"
Demonstrators hold posters during an anti-Le Pen protest in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol, April 27, 2002. France braced for mass street protests against far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen as a new poll forecast he would suffer a landslide defeat to President Jacques Chirac in a May 5 election runoff. Photo by Andrea Comas/Reuters
Saturday's protests were being seen by police as a dry-run for the demonstrations for and against Le Pen due to take place in the capital on May 1, which the authorities fear could easily descend into violence.
"It is a good-natured movement," said an unnamed police commander in the Liberation daily, "but all these young people in the street -- no one is controlling them, and the gangs from the suburbs could come and join in. It could easily degenerate."
Officials warned that violence at the demonstrations would play into the hands of Le Pen, who is running a campaign based round the themes of crime and immigration.
The 73 year-old leader of the National Front (FN) stunned France on Sunday when he won through to the second round of the presidential election against incumbent President Jacques Chirac, beating Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin into third place.
Throughout the week high-school and university students have led a campaign of protests against Le Pen, culminating Thursday when more than 300,000 people were on the streets.
But Le Pen accused his political opponents of orchestrating the protests and said they might even be illegal.
"They are not in the least spontaneous," he said. "The political superstructure is making use of our youth and our children as a political shield. I am not sure it is very legal to allow children to be launched in demonstrations that are built around slogans of hate."
The first opinion poll to be published since last Sunday gave a clear victory in the May 5 second round to Chirac, with 81 percent to Le Pen's 19.
According to the CSA survey for Le Parisien newspaper, 29 percent of those questioned said they would abstain or spoil their ballot papers.
French polling institutes have been widely attacked for failing to predict Le Pen's victory over Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
Critics said polls indicating Chirac and Jospin were the only two with a chance of qualifying encouraged a sense of complacency which led to high abstention and let Le Pen squeeze through.
And they warned that a similar phenomenon could recur in round two if Chirac is consistently shown to be uncatchable in the polls.
On Friday one leading company BVA said it would publish no opinion samples before the second round because of the "extraordinarily fluid" situation.
Copyright 2002 AFP