To understand the French, just attend their demos

The anti-Le Pen march, in contrast to the National Front rally, was joyfully, gloriously disorderly
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The anti-Le Pen demonstration in Paris was huge. Not British lefty huge, where a man with a slight stutter stoops over a microphone having been unable to adjust it to his height and says: "What an amazing turnout we've got today." Then it screeches with feedback while you think to yourself, "there's exactly 186 because I counted".

Trying to leave the march in order to write this felt like being a robber trying to evade the police at the end of a Hollywood car chase. I would spot an empty side street, advance up it 50 yards, then an enormous crowd would surge down it and I'd be forced to find another escape route. Every wide French road within vision was packed and impossible to squeeze through, so that trying to go anywhere was like walking against a crowd leaving a Pogues gig. And this was an hour before the march was officially due to start. Maybe the French reckon that as they were five years late opposing the fascists last time, they'd better make sure and be punctual this time round.

A few hours earlier, I'd walked past the magnificent Opera building, in front of which a stage was being prepared for Le Pen's speech to his supporters. A series of roadies was running across the stage administering a soundcheck. Fascist soundchecks aren't things you see every day, but I suppose Hitler must have had them, especially for outdoor gigs with no natural acoustics, like Nuremberg. Someone must have stood there yelling: "Ein. ein. ein zwei. I'm still getting a bit of echo, Joseph."

There were around 15,000 on the National Front march, almost all carrying French flags; not just any French flags, but pristine, crisp and perfectly ironed. Then a contingent carried equally immaculate flags with the slogan, "God, family, country", just ahead of a line of old people covered in war medals and wearing unfathomably huge berets.

Giant screens conveyed their leader's speech and a Le Pen airship flew above. All this is presumably supposed to make these people feel part of something they can be proud of, instead of feeling lost and abandoned, a sentiment of "I've no job, but I do have an airship". Yet it was strangely miserable, in a Third Reich sort of way, as if attendance was out of duty.

In a nearby cafe a man from Mauritius told me he was just "having a look" before going to the anti-Le Pen march. "These people are only here because they're disappointed," he said, before launching into a sophisticated critique of how French politicians have failed the population. He described the abuse he'd received from some National Front marchers, then held me firmly and said: "You are English, so tell me..." I prepared myself for one of those seminal moments. "... are Arsenal going to win the Premier League," he said.

In fact I had spent the night before in a bar in central Paris watching the Manchester United match. It was packed and split about one-third African, one-third Arab, one-third white. Which could easily leave you feeling there was no problem at all in French society, except for the fact that they all seemed to support Manchester United.

Next we went to the anti-Le Pen march which, politics aside, was such a relief to arrive at because in contrast to the National Front rally it was so joyfully gloriously disorderly. As you emerged from the Metro you were confronted by the seductively pungent smoke of a dozen kebab stalls. Vast sound systems competed, in a non-competitive sort of way, so that at certain points you could hear an African band, the first Specials album and a relentless Kurdish kazoo, which may have created a whole new musical form. On another side of the square, dance tracks were drowning out a speech, so that the only way the speaker could have made himself audible would have been to rap along with the beat.

Perhaps this is a strategy the modern left will have to master, so that one day the Ministry of Sound will rave to Tony Benn's speech on nuclear disarmament put out on a 12-inch club mix.

Everything seemed to echo slightly, in that way Tannoy announcements always do in Europe. And the loudest stall of all was that of the Turkish Communist Party, who sang with inspiration oozing from every syllable, although for all I know they were singing "hoorah, corn production has risen 30 per cent since we tipped that Trotskyist down a mine shaft".

And instead of the chilling symmetry of fascism was a blooming of individuality. One banner said: "No to the dangerous racist xenophobic Nazi – vote for the demagogue sick with power and pray, my brothers, that God will call him to justice very very quickly." What's the chances that he'll ever be able to use that one again?

Another banner proclaimed: "Le Pen – your Christ is Jewish, your democracy is Greek, your figures are Arabic, your words are Latin, we are all foreigners." This was so much more than a crowd of people used to attending protests. Some of them even seemed surprised to be offered a leaflet. Some even said merci as if it was an act of kindness.

Every layer of society seemed to be represented. A family, looking as if they were off for a picnic, kept stopping to take pictures of each other, making "oh Kevin, for goodness sake look at the camera" type expressions. Then the oldest woman shouted "take one of my placards" and proudly thrust it forward. It said: "Le Pen – I'm here to piss on your flame."

There were French flags, but like the banners, they were creased, smudged and lived in, so that any girls under 15 carrying one looked like the girl in the Les Miserables poster. They also had several hot air balloons, which may or may not feel as empowering as an airship, but again were gloriously tatty. And there were crowds of kids. For a party whose rallying cry is defending the family, the National Front rally had no kids.

But there were loads of them, proper kids with three on a bike yelling something I couldn't understand that was probably French for "dur, Terry you div". And there was an enormous queue for tobacco that would never do on a British demonstration.

Much of the press were, no doubt, waiting for a riot. But it seems that according to police figures, there were 400,000 in Paris, and 900,000 anti-Le Pen demonstrators elsewhere. This was France, and as far as we know not a single animal was set fire to.

However, making a better effort at living up to their stereotype, oblivious to the whole scene, a group of old men was playing boules on some gravel. They were probably there last time France was troubled by fascism, maybe shouting: "Oy, you with the moustache, tell those tank commanders to keep the noise down, we're on the last point."

This explosion of activity was the culmination of a week of events since the first election, and you could inhabit it in the belief that all was well in this fine land, before remembering that several million have voted for fascists. Equally, the straight lines of flag-wavers at the National Front rally will pay no attention to this mass gathering.

It's as if France is two parallel nations, barely able to believe the other exists at all. At the moment one is basking in relative electoral glory, but can't mobilise more than a handful of foot soldiers. The other is boosted by its extraordinary response and ability to mobilise, but doesn't quite know where it's going next. And they can both carry on, each side of their parallel lines, for a while, but not for ever.