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French race reaching final hurdle

The rain dampened an anti Jean-Marie Le Pen protest in Marseille  

PARIS, France -- The two candidates in the French presidential elections have made their final rallying speeches ahead of the weekend poll.

Opponents of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen took to the streets of Marseille ahead of his final election campaign rally at Marseille on Thursday.

The police chief of the southern French city said a bigger police presence had been deployed to prevent the pro and anti Le Pen marches from clashing than had been used during the riots which broke out in England's 1998 World Cup soccer games in the city.

About 1,500 police officers escorted the students and union members along the march, but the biggest dampener was probably the rain.

It was Le Pen's last rally before Sunday's presidential run-off against incumbent conservative president Jacques Chirac.

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Marseille, a Mediterranean port city with a large Muslim community of mainly North African origin, attracted at least 30,000 anti Le Pen opponents on Wednesday as part of the May Day marches.

The numbers were well down a day later with news agencies putting the figure between the hundreds and the thousands.

Le Pen, 73, has done well electorally in the racially mixed city but his final speech was made before a far from full house.

His opponent Chirac was canvassing at the other end of France, in Villepinte on the northern edge of Paris on Thursday night.

The 69-year-old is predicted to win with a large majority on Sunday, despite being dogged by financial scandals, thanks to the elimination of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round on April 21.

Chirac, who polled only 20 percent against Le Pen's 17 percent in that ballot, is trying to convince voters he truly shares their anxieties after more than three decades in high office.

"Against the fascist, vote for the crook," ran a popular slogan around the hundreds of demonstrations on Wednesday.

He has called on socialists to vote for him in an attempt to block Le Pen from power. It is the nearest a far-right candidate has come to being elected president during the Fifth Republic.

The rallies follow the biggest daily electoral demonstration to have been held since Le Pen's shock second-place in the April 21 ballot. (Full story)

The National Front leader attracted about 10,000 supporters at his Paris rally which was amalgamated with the party's annual homage to its patron saint, Joan of Arc. Le Pen put the figure at more than 100,000. (On the Scene)

Le Pen had dismissed the demonstrators marching against him in a radio interview earlier in the day. He had been quoted by Reuters as saying: "I listen to the voters, I do not listen to demonstrators.

"I've never accepted the law of the streets against the law of the ballot box."

The former paratrooper is already looking ahead to June's parliamentary elections.

He told France-Info radio on Thursday: "As long as God gives me the strength to do it and good health, I'll continue to fight for my country, for France, as I've done for 50 years."

"Against the fascist, vote for the crook," ran a popular slogan around the hundreds of demonstrations on Wednesday.




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