At 1 am last night, on Place de la Bastille, in the middle of a French crowd, two Japanese tourists were taking photographs. Maybe they had spent their evening watching television in their tiny hotel room, maybe they had gone to bed early because they had been walking in Paris all day long. Then thousands of demonstrators had arrived under their windows and had started to chant slogans. The Japanese tourists had been intelligent enough to get out of bed, put their clothes on, take their cameras and come to see what was happening down there, in the street.
At first sight the situation was clear. Le Pen, the 73-year old far right leader, had just taken the second place in the Presidential election. It was the most important and dreadful turmoil in national politics since the war against Algeria had forced the country to change its Constitution in 1958. More people had voted for a man who blamed the immigrants for everything than for a Prime Minister who had reduced unemployment and given them more holidays. Now, thousands of people were gathering there, on Place de la Bastille, to protest against Le Pen.
On the pedestal of the gigantic Bastille column, a large streamer said: "No pasarán !" Some people were wearing a sheet of paper on their chest, with quickly-written words: "Tonight I am ashamed to be French". Or they had a copy of the left-wing newspaper Libération: on the first page, there was only a big "Non" above an image of Le Pen. People talked together spontaneously: "you are Englishe, goode, goode, it's nice to see you!" The Japanese tourists were watching all this and taking photographs. They could probably grasp the general meaning.
But there was something else, something they could not understand. The most active people in the demonstration were the trotskyites, with their red flags. The same trotskyites, by voting against Jospin earlier, were partly responsible for the success of Le Pen, just like Nader in the United States was indirectly responsible for the failure of Gore. Some of the trotskyite banderoles said: "Capitalism is the true fascism". What did these people really mean when they said the word "democracy"?
Another thing that the tourists may have not noticed, because Japan is a one-race country, is that the immigrants were missing tonight. Very few North-African faces in the crowd, and almost no Black people. Where were the young suburban immigrants whom Le Pen blames for stealing French jobs? They were not interested; they should have been. Most of them had not voted. White European Parisian students were sharing their fraternity for other races and cultures, but without these races and cultures. The favorite slogan, all night long, was: "We are all children of immigrants". Which meant that they were not really children of immigrants. They were heading for the City Hall when a black woman greeted them from the only window of her 1st-floor room in a cheap hotel. The contrast with the crowd was such that dozens of people stopped and gave her an ovation. They were so happy: at last they could show how much they loved someone who was probably an immigrant.
At 1:30 am, the crowd got to the City Hall and called the Mayor, a socialist, by his first name. Bodyguards appeared at the window, but not dear Bertrand. I could not see the Japanese tourists any more. Maybe they had returned to their hotel. In the morning, they would probably feel tired and stay in bed later than usual. They knew that what they had seen tonight was more important than one more museum or one more church.
I came back home: it was a 45-minute walk, and there was work to do in the morning. I had started to wander in the streets two hours before, without knowing exactly what I was looking for: an atmosphere, an explanation, a sign on the walls or on the faces. When something important happens, you can always see it somewhere in Paris. People walk, talk, sing. They write slogans on the walls. Occasionally they break windows. It makes you feel that you understand something. But you understand nothing, because tonight at 1 am, as any other night, most of the good French citizens were in bed. And their dreams or nightmares had nothing to do with politics.