Were there half a million or a million people marching in the Parisian drizzle on January 16? No one can say. It was a human sea, a tide sweeping slowly through the capital from morning to night. The Bretons, who led the march, took two hours to pass my vantage point. It was the biggest demo the French left has staged since the student uprisings of May 1968.

This time they came from all over the country to defend a symbol, the myth of l’école laïque, the public school, free, providing equal opportunities for all, the melting pot of the Republic. I say myth because the public school system, by itself, cannot uproot social inequality, and public education has been losing ground in recent years. Indeed, private schools–which in France are almost exclusively Catholic–now account for about 14 percent of the enrollment in primary schools and more than 20 percent in secondary. Indeed, because the state system did not fully satisfy the social demand, the right held its own demonstration ten years ago, presenting the defense of private schools as a defense of freedom. (In 1850, during another school debate, Victor Hugo challenged the clerical right: "When you forge a chain, you call it freedom.")

Encouraged by the cowardly concessions to Catholic schools made by the Socialists and by his own huge majority in the new Parliament, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur thought this was a good moment to satisfy the Catholic lobby and eliminate the part of the historic compromise of 1850 (known as the loi Falloux) that limits the amount of money local authorities may grant as subsidies to private schools. Little did he know what he was unleashing. What the French call le peuple de gauche, the rank and file, who have swallowed a great deal, were incensed by this symbolic gift to the Catholic Church. In an egalitarian outburst they rebelled against the triumphant smugness of the right, against the arrogant reign of money, against the vision of éducation à l’américaine, in which you can buy your way to the top. Although the Constitutional Council had nullified the law and the government had tried to extricate itself from the political mess, it was too late. The rank and file were determined to march on Paris, and left-wing politicians, as behooves good leaders, followed their troops.

Despite some surreal slogans ("Money for students, lions for Christians"), the demonstration was a good-natured affair. The people of the left, awakened from their slumber, were delighted to see how numerous they were. They flexed their muscle, not knowing what to do with their rediscovered strength. This awakening may not greatly improve, say, the presidential chances of the Socialist Michel Rocard, but it changes the mood of the country and the political climate. Marching that Sunday in the rain, one could not help feeling that this event, with all its contradictions, really reflected the dilemma of the left throughout Western Europe: its tremendous potential and its lack of leadership as well as a strategy to harness all that steam. Now the left needs an enemy, the smug Balladur in this case, to drive it, defensively, into the streets.