The French celebrate Le Millennium as only they can......with du pain, vin, lashings of elan (and pas de Dome)

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Four million people came to lunch yesterday. Fortunately, most brought their own food. And hats and umbrellas.

Four million people came to lunch yesterday. Fortunately, most brought their own food. And hats and umbrellas.

The picnic was stupendously long, 600 miles long, with 400 miles of specially made table-cloth. It was so long that the weather changed several times between one end (at Dunkirk on the Belgian border) and the other extremity (at Prats-de-Mollo in the Pyrenees). Parts had bright sunshine; parts had clouds; parts had torrential rain and high winds that turned portions of the vast, nation-spanning, red-and-white table-cloth into a pink mush.

In villages just north of Paris the picnic was served under the tablecloth until it fell apart. In the capital itself, the rain mostly kept away. That all goes to prove God is not really French after all; or maybe only French in parts. At any rate, He must have decided the French had been having too much of a good thing recently: they had won all those football games; they had treacherously turned into a boom economy when everyone said that the country was going to the chiens.

It would have been excessive to allow the Incroyable pique-nique - planned for three years as France's principal millennium gift to itself - to pass off in bright sunshine. In the event, most of the 960km of picnic escaped with no more than a shower and a few tablecloth-shredding gusts of wind.

In Paris, and most of the other 336 communes en route, the crowds carried on eating and singing and having fun regardless.

In the capital, something very strange happened. Visitors may have noticed that Paris is not the friendliest, chattiest or most helpful city in the world.

Yesterday, in a red-and-white checked ribbon of merriment cutting across the city from north to south (following theold Paris meridian, like the rest of the "incredible picnic") Parisians talked to one another. They talked to tourists. They shared their food with one another. They shared their food with foreigners.

The Place du Palais Royal, in the shadow of the Louvre, usually one of the most car-choked and sharp-elbowed spaces in the city, turned into a village square. Enormous brown cows grazed on hay in a pen. A country dance band from the Auvergne played accordions and bagpipes.

A huge circle of trestle tables was crowded with people and plastic and brown paper bags and pâté and baguettes and saucissons and cherries and grapes and wine and cheese and ham (and even the odd can of Coca-Cola).

Monique Leroux, 64, who had come alone, said: "Today I have spoken to three young people that I didn't know, all charming. This has been a wonderful event. It is as if we have rediscovered our sense of fun in France, our joie de vivre, our openness to strangers, something which we used to be famous for but perhaps not so much recently."

The saddest village yesterday was probably Treignat, in the northern Auvergne, where an extra large picnic site was prepared. The village had been chosen as the point where runners from north and south, in an "Incredible Relay Race" along the meridian line, would meet each other. More than 10,000 people were expected to turn up in a village of 475. The rain was torrential all day in Treignat, turning the picnic site into a mud-bath. "They promised it would be incredible and it is," said the mayor. "Especially the weather." Along most of its route the "incredible picnic" was a great success, possibly the best idea thought up by a committee.

Mission 2000, the group in charge of organising millennium events in France, was given two instructions: think up something spectacular; think up something cheap. At the time, in 1996-97, the economy was failing. France, which usually adores big building projects, decided it could not afford a millennium-marking monument (such as a Dome, for instance).

One member of the committee suggested doing something to revive the memory of the Paris meridian, once a rival to the Greenwich meridian, as the global baseline for the calculation of time.

Another member of the committee suggested inviting people to a picnic, bringing their own food, in every commune along the meridian line on 14 July, Bastille Day, 2000.

And so the Incredible Picnic was born. The state paid 30 per cent of the costs of each site. Commercial sponsors picked up most of the rest of the bill, including the cost of the 90 tonnes of tablecloth. The total bill to the taxpayer of yesterday's festivities was £5m, against £758m for the Greenwich Dome. But at least we have the Dome for longer ...

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