Following the first attack at 3 am French time, the morning papers were ready with generic “War Is Here” headlines, accompanied by full-page images of dark skies. During the day, France was reminded in the media by President Chirac that peaceful disarmament could have been accomplished, and that “whatever the duration of the war, the long-term consequences will be heavy,” while Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin insisted that the situation in Israel and Palestine represented a greater threat to Middle East peace than Iraq did, one that needed to be resolved with assured security for Israel and justice for the Palestinians.
Students of my son’s lycée went through with their planned walkouts, joining with students from across Paris. At a company where I tutor a sales executive in English, it was clear when I arrived that the receptionist had been crying. “I know what it’s like to be bombed,” she said, referring to her experience in Belgrade. “I can’t believe they continue this insanity.” My student said she was unable to concentrate on selling handbags. “I don’t know a single person who believes in this war,” she added.
Outside, heavy police guards were protecting the US Embassy and barricaded consulate, normally heavy traffic was halted within a 500-meter radius and an eerie silence hung over usually congested streets. Traditionally off-limits to demonstrations because of its proximity to the US Embassy, the immense Place de la Concorde began filling up with 100,000 protesters by 6:30 pm. Students arrived with a loudspeaker playing “Imagine” and “Stop the War.” Members of Americans in France Against the War on Iraq attached posters to their bodies on which were printed a drawing of George W. Bush and the words “Wanted: War Criminal.”
Many non-affiliated newcomers were among those at the demonstration. “I heard it announced on Europe 1 Radio,” one Frenchman said. “I don’t believe the argument about weapons of mass destruction,” said another. “Everyone knows they want to control the oil.” “We really thought Chirac would eventually follow Bush to war,” said an experienced activist. “We never liked the man, but now he deserves credit.”
Two days later, yet another demonstration, the third in eight days, drew 100,000. Leaders from diverse leftist parties, so often at odds, marched arm in arm in an unprecedented show of unity; the marchers included Bertrand Delanoë, socialist mayor of Paris. Spirited spectator applause greeted the American contingent along the way. When I arrived home, two regular gamblers came out from the horse-betting cafe across from my apartment, happily oblivious to the war, I assumed. “How was the demonstration?” one of them asked. “Huge,” I responded. They gave me the thumbs-up sign.