The Eclipse: France - World shares a strange ceremony of science, superstition and awe
John Lichfield has been The Independent's man in Paris since 1997, covering French news. Before that, he was the paper's Foreign Editor and he has also worked in Brussels and Washington. In 1999, he was the UK press Awards Foreign Reporter of the year.
Thursday 12 August 1999
Scores of people - mostly middle-aged men - fought over 5,000 free pairs of "eclipse glasses" that were being distributed in the car park of a shopping mall. Many of the glasses were destroyed in the process.
Were the rioters moonstruck or sunstruck? In many parts of the 60-mile wide band of total eclipse in northern France, from Cherbourg to Strasbourg, it was difficult to be anything but cloud-struck. Although the French skies were not completely covered, the town of Noyon, north of Paris, chosen as the official viewing spot by the Societe Astronomique de France, suffered a total grey-out. Reims, a little to the east, managed to see five seconds of total eclipse, instead of the full two minutes.
Passengers on board the Brittany Ferries ship Normandie, travelling between Caen and Portsmouth, were luckier. The ship's captain found a cloudless patch of sky for the full duration of the eclipse in mid-Channel.
In Paris, tens of thousands of people blocked the Place de la Concorde, the Champs de Mars and bridges over the Seine in the hope of getting a better view of the almost complete eclipse over the capital. They booed and whistled whenever clouds spoilt their fun.
Several apocalyptic sects - and the couturier Paco Rabanne - had forecast that the eclipse would be accompanied by widespread devastation, including the destruction of Paris and/or parts of the departement of Gers by Mir crashing to Earth. The nearest any of the predictions came to fulfilment was a mock enactment of the space-station crash, which attracted thousands of tourists to the town of Condom, in Gers.
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