Out of France: Royalists do the right thing by Louis and Lenin

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PARIS - It has been an eventful few weeks in Montparnasse. On the Boulevard Raspail, the Fondation Cartier inaugurated its new gallery. The glass structure, designed by Jean Nouvel, was carefully constructed around a cedar planted by the writer and politician Chateaubriand. Replacing a red-roofed building which used to house Paris's American Cultural Centre, the main innovation of this new gallery is that, thanks to the abundant use of glass, visitors will be able to see past exhibits and into the street. Traffic, the weather and passers-by will all form part of the decor.

However, more mundane stone and brick structures conceal what is going on just around the corner on the rue Campagne Premiere. Some weeks ago three strangers walked into the Camilou cafe. Two were men, one corpulent, elderly and wearing a beret, the other shaven- headed and in riding breeches. The third was a matronly woman of a certain age. Alain Narboni, the cafe-owner, served them with his usual cordiality. Then he confided that the new customers were potential competitors. They had taken over the vacant Breton creperie along the street and planned to turn it into a wine bar.

Mr Narboni said he had been asked, as a licensing formality, whether he had any objections. Although he feared the competition, he did not want to antagonise neighbours who would probably obtain their permit anyway. So he planned no opposition. The opening date for the bistro was set for 1 March. This was delayed several times; eventually the official opening was held on 10 March.

In the meantime the three newcomers seemed ubiquitous and made it a habit to wish all and sundry a good day. One lunchtime they turned up in Le Rouge Vif, a local Lyonnais restaurant. A waiter told me they had run the Pere Tranquille restaurant on the Avenue du Maine while its owner had been absent for a few months.

The owner was named in a doctoral thesis presented at the Sorbonne as the cook for banquets held by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the president of the far-right, anti-immigration National Front. A clue to the link came with the name of the new establishment - La Mere Agitee. This is a play on words which, to the ear, sounds like the French for 'stormy sea'. In this spelling it means 'The Excited Mother', a counterweight to the nearby 'Calm Father' or Pere Tranquille.

Both intrigued and slightly disturbed, I decided to find out exactly who the new wine-bar operators were before raising one of their glasses to my lips. Shortly before the opening, I peered through the new restaurant's window. In a corner I saw a small stone Breton cross, one of the symbols of nationhood that the French far right has adopted as its own. When the matronly woman, taken to hailing me each day with a cheery 'bonjour,' invited me to the inaugural evening, I politely declined, pleading not dishonestly that dentistry I had just undergone made it unwise.

To my surprise, as I passed on the day of the opening party, I saw a neighbour, a freelance French journalist with firm anti-rightist views, in conversation with the owners and sipping a glass of red. The following day I came across the journalist and a former French army colonel, another neighbour who used to work in the military archives. 'Did you know,' asked the colonel, 'that our new neighbours were royalists?'

'I wondered,' I said, 'if they were not a little National-Frontiste, since they were at the Pere Tranquille.' 'No', said the journalist, 'that's just coincidence. They're monarchists.'

'Now,' said the colonel, 'we have somewhere to go on 21 January to mark the anniversary of Louis XVI's death' - the main event in the French royalists' calendar. Although French royalists can come from all parts of the political spectrum, they tend to be from the hard right. Royalists are particularly numerous among Catholic fundamentalists, many of whom sympathise with the National Front.

I crossed paths with the colonel the following weekend. He pointed out a handbill pasted on the bar window advertising a nearby private Catholic school. 'I think I'll transfer my son there,' he said. 'It's obviously a school with the right orientation.'

I asked if and when he intended to try the place. 'We'll go together on 21 January,' the colonel said. 'But we'll tell them we've come to mark the death of Lenin. He and Louis XVI died on the same date, you know.'