It's not every day that you see 8-year-olds pretending to be head of state, but in France these days, politics has grabbed just about everyone's imagination.
The boys leaping off a park bench on a recent day shouted: "I am Super Liar," a reference to President Jacques Chirac, so dubbed by a satirical television program here. The show has featured a latex puppet of Mr. Chirac dressed in a Superman-style outfit and carrying a briefcase bulging with stolen bank notes a reference to the financial scandals that have tarnished the chief executive's reputation.
But as Chirac heads into a runoff against a far-right ultranationalist Sunday, France is holding its collective nose as it looks set to reelect the man seen as the lesser of two evils.
It's a measure of the state of politics here that more than a million people took to the streets this week, to urge their fellow countrymen to vote for a man they have called a swindler and a thief.
Brandishing placards that read "Votez escroc, pas facho!" ("Vote for the crook, not for the fascist!"), and "No to fascism, yes to democracy!" demonstrators have marched in more than 100 towns and villages in France.
The nation was stunned April 21, when a record-low turnout resulted in a shut-out for the country's socialists and a No. 2 two spot for Le Pen, who garnered an impressive 17.3 percent of the vote.
Frustrated left-wing voters, who didn't bother to turn out during the first round, are now forced to cast their ballot for a man they largely despise. Some say they will wear gloves to "protect" their hands from "contamination" or use tweezers to pick up the ballot paper bearing Chirac's name. The protesters say anyone is better than Le Pen, who is famous for calling Nazi gas chambers "but a detail of World War II history."
But Le Pen strikes a chord among some middle- and working-class Frenchmen, for whom he eloquently articulates fears of immigrants, rising crime, and a presumed erosion of France's traditions and status through globalization. Last week, LePen, waging his fourth presidential attempt, said that as part of his anti-immigration initiatives he would set up "transit camps" for illegal immigrants before their deportation a choice of vocabulary critics say harks back to Nazi camps for Jews. He has also pledged to reintroduce the death penalty and to take France out of the European Union.
In Paris, the anti-Le Pen crowds grew to as high as 800,000, organizers say. Outside the capital, officials in several towns said there had not been so many people on the streets since Liberation Day in 1945.
Blandine Ranquet, a middle-aged mother of four, had never taken to the streets before. At Paris's Place de la Bastille with her youngest son, Théophile,10, she explained: "I would have been proud to know that my grandparents were demonstrating in the 1930s against the rise of fascism. I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I took a stand myself when it was necessary."
At the same time, Le Pen staged his biggest rally yet before tens of thousands of jubilant supporters in central Paris. He told the crowd: "The current president is the godfather of the clans who are bleeding the country dry. He stinks of corruption. He is dripping with dirty money."
It is hard to imagine that only a few weeks ago, pre-election boredom reigned. But since the first round, phones have been ringing off the hook at voter registration centers across the country, and celebrities have been lining up to endorse Chirac.
On Tuesday, some 100 of the country's best-known sports, pop and film stars gathered in front of the Pompidou Art Center to urge voters to reject Le Pen.
Most analysts agree that Chirac, who attracted less than 1 in 5 of the voters who bothered to show up for the first round, is due to win the runoff in a landslide. One of the country's leading pollsters, the IPSOS institute, has reported that Chirac would garner between 74 and 81 percent of the votes, as opposed to between 19 and 26 percent for Le Pen. Pollsters say one difficulty in trying to take a measure of the electorate is that Le Pen voters typically deny having voted for him. Giles Corman, a political analyst with the Taylor Nelson Sofres Polling Institute, said his company did its usual phone calls on the day after the first round and found that about 7 percent said they had voted for Le Pen. In reality, about 17 percent did.
"If you admit you're a Le Pen supporter, you're automatically marginalized in society," said a Paris schoolteacher at a pro-Le Pen rally who gave her name only as Catherine M. "I don't tell my friends or colleagues. I even hide it from my children."
The high level of abstention in the first round, particularly among young voters, and the strong results for extremist parties on the right and on the left more emphatic in impoverished and racially mixed suburbs of France's big cities have been read as a clear sign that the country's mainstream parties have lost credibility and that key issues, such as a failure to integrate immigrants into society and rising crime, haven't been addressed.
Material from Edith Coron in Paris and the Associated Press was used in this report.