PARIS - Waving homemade placards and chanting "No to fascism," more than 1 million people took to the streets across France yesterday in May Day demonstrations aimed at the far-right presidential candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The turnout, including 400,000 in Paris, was far larger than predicted and dwarfed the 10,000 to 15,000 people who gathered in an early morning show of support for Le Pen.
The marches were watched carefully here as an opportunity to gauge voter sentiment in the presidential elections, which are four days away.
On that score, the day suggested an invigorated French electorate eager to make sure that Le Pen, who shocked the nation by qualifying for the runoff against Gaullist President Jacques Chirac, does not make it to the Elysee Palace.
The anti-Le Pen demonstrators, some with red-white-and-blue flags painted on their faces, some covered in anti-Le Pen stickers, clogged the streets for hours as the huge and good-natured march became bogged down.
"It is so good to see this many people out here," said Richard Girault, a 29-year-old pharmacist who said he was stunned when Le Pen, benefiting from a high rate of abstention and a large field of candidates, nudged the Socialist prime minister out of the race. "The world needs to know that this is the real France. Everyone is in the street because we don't want a fascist."
Paris officials had braced for yesterday's events, deploying more than 3,500 riot police to keep the peace. But in the end, no violence was reported.
May Day was celebrated by millions of other people around the world, in cities from Berlin to Madrid to Havana. But in France, a day normally used to express solidarity with workers became an occasion to rally opposition to Le Pen, who has repeatedly made racist and anti-immigrant remarks. Anti-Le Pen marches were reported in 70 towns across the country.
Le Pen's rally fell far short of the support he had hoped for. His campaign officials insisted that 70,000 people had turned out, but government and news media counts put the figure much lower.
The atmosphere among Le Pen's National Front supporters was sometimes tense. Men far outnumbered women, and large numbers of hefty young men, wearing arm patches and leather gloves, patrolled the edges of the crowd.
When Le Pen addressed the marchers, a National Front security detail composed of men dressed mostly in black, some with bandanas across their faces to prevent recognition by the police, hustled hecklers at the back of the crowd out of hearing range.
In a 90-minute speech, Le Pen made a bitter attack against Chirac. "The outgoing president is the godfather of the clans who've been bleeding the country for two decades and living the high life with French people's money," he said.
Some of his supporters said they were thrilled that he had come so far this year.
"We are out here to show that we meant it when we voted for Mr. Le Pen," said Marie-Caroline Mantin, 37, a housewife who brought her six children to the march. "A vote for Le Pen is a vote for our children, and especially for a fight against crime."
Michel Allagrini, 56, a Swiss economist who has lived in France for a year, felt much the same. "He wants to have security here, like Rudy Giuliani, and that's good, because it's completely crazy here - there's no respect for the law."
At the Place de la Republique, where the anti-Le Pen protesters had gathered, a significantly larger crowd jammed the square and filled it with music, balloons, placards and voices.
"I'm ashamed" read a common refrain on handwritten signs, a reaction to the 17 percent support Le Pen won in the election's first round.
"I did not vote in the first round because I was in the middle of a move," said Pierre Henriot, a 50-year-old lawyer. "If I had, I would have voted for Jospin. But now I will vote for Chirac. I must. You cannot avoid taking responsibility."