France prepares for its national picnic 'sur l'herbe'

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France will offer a vast, gastronomic reply to the Millennium Dome today: a picnic 600 miles long, from Dunkirk to the Pyrenees, with one plastic, red-and-white checked tablecloth stretching, metaphorically, the length of the country.

France will offer a vast, gastronomic reply to the Millennium Dome today: a picnic 600 miles long, from Dunkirk to the Pyrenees, with one plastic, red-and-white checked tablecloth stretching, metaphorically, the length of the country.

The picnic will hug the line of the "Paris meridian", an 18th-century rival to the Greenwich meridian. The 337 communes along the notional line from the Belgian to the Spanish borders have invited locals and tourists to bring and share food at giant picnic sites.

France decided in 1997 that it could not afford a large dome-like project to mark the new millennium: it decided instead to celebrate on Bastille Day 2000 in an archetypically French way, with a grande bouffe, or enormous nosh-up.

Each village or town along the way has received on average a 1.5 kilometre (almost a mile) stretch of a plastic sheet 6ft wide, intended to resemble the traditional red and white picnic, or bistro, tablecloth.

Paris will have 21 picnics and has qualified for an extra-large, 12-km share of cloth. (The 90 tons and 400 miles of nappe or tablecloth are not enough to stretch all the way from Belgium to Spain.) Each commune has put its own piece to a different use. Montmagny, a town north of Paris, used its five-mile share to wrap the town hall.

"In France, eating is the quintessence of togetherness," said the architect Paul Chemetov, who was on the committee which thought up the idea.

The boom in the French economy and victories of the national football team in the World Cup and Euro 2000 have elevated the national mood. L'incroyable pique-nique has turned into a boisterous festival of Frenchness, with many communes splashing out on side events, roller-skating races and air shows, and feasts of local delicacies, from duck terrine in the Oise to a giant cherry-cake in the Somme and Roquefort cheeses in Aveyron.

But a huge, dark threat hangs over the event. The weather. Even the southern part of France, basking in sunshine until the start of the week, has been covered by the swirling clouds that ruined the first two weeks of July in northern France and Britain.

Rain is forecast today along most of the 960.1 kilometres of the Paris meridian from Dunkirk to the tiny village of Prats-de-Mollo-la-Preste on the Spanish border.

The Paris meridian is a notional north-south line, drawn around the world, with Paris as its starting and ending point. Trees have also been planted at regular intervals along the line.

The meridian was first traced in the 17th century and rivalled Greenwich in the 18th century as a would-be universal base-line for the keeping of world time. France went over to Greenwich Mean Time for its own time-keeping in 1911. Despite France's aversion to "globalism", the country has no plans to go back to Paris Mean Time, which would put its clocks a few seconds before or behind those in all other countries.

But the Paris meridian has made its own significant contribution to the world uniformity. The presumed length of the line, from Paris around the globe and back again, was used by the French revolutionary National Assembly in 1799 to declare a universal definition of measurement. The "metre" was defined as one 10-millionth of the distance around the globe, as measured from, and defined by the Paris observatory. That metre is still the world's accepted standard.

* Aircraft from seven European nations, including four RAF Jaguars, will take part in the annual Bastille Day flypast and parade in Paris as a symbol of progress towards a European Union defence policy.

There will also be infantry from nine European nations, including Britain, escorting the colours of the four European forces already in place, the European corps, Eurofor and the European naval and air groups.

Forces from individual EU nations, including Britain, have marched before on the Champs-Elysées on 14 July but this is the largest contingent.

France has joined Britain in spearheading moves towards a separate European defence identity within Nato and the European Union. Paris is making defence and security policy a principal theme of its presidency of the European Union this half-year.

France had intended to invite military representatives from all 14 of its EU partners but that was made impractical by the continuing diplomatic sanctions against Austria. But in a slight thawing of the freeze, the French have invited the Austrian ambassador.

Pride of place in the fly-past, behind the French team, will be given to four aircraft each from France, Britain, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The seven countries contribute to the European air group.

The Bastille Day parade will be led by the flag-bearers of the four European military forces, escorted by soldiers from Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and Luxembourg.

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