Yesterday, at about three-thirty in the afternoon, as Susie and I were fussing over the last decisions about which bits of clothing to leave in our locked cabinets here and which to pack for home, we heard in the distance the unmistakable sounds of a manifestation – the French word for a street demonstration. One of the unexpected delights of the quartier in which our apartment is located is that every street demonstration in Paris sooner or later makes its way through Place Maubert, half a block away. Naturally, we hurried outside to see what was up. As we got to the Place, we saw and heard an enormous mass of people dancing and strutting their way down Boulevard St. Germain, accompanied by sound trucks, balloons, placards, fliers, and masses of stolid police in full riot gear. It was the annual Gay Pride celebration, on its way from Montparnasse to Place de la Bastille.
Gay Pride this year is a mixture of celebration and defiance – celebration because France has just legalized same-sex marriage, the very first having been performed in Marseilles last month; defiance because the legalization has provoked an angry and on occasion violent backlash, with a number of small town mayors refusing to perform the ceremony. Three weeks ago, during Fête des Mères [Mother’s Day], the religious right took to the streets for a manifestation which, like all the others, marched through Place Maubert. Susie and I stood by the side of the road, stolid and disapproving, as they passed by.
We were here for last year’s Gay Pride march, and this one seemed even bigger. It had all the usual eye-catchers – tall gay men in wedding gowns and impossibly high heels, posing for every camera they could spot, thousands of young people dancing and chanting, sound trucks with their amps turned up so loud that the buildings shook as they passed, even a group of deaf gay and lesbian folks excitedly signing to one another. At one point, just after a big float went by with people dancing on its roof, one of the men at the back of the float blew a shrill whistle and put his fingers to his lips. The entire crowd, up and down the boulevard, fell silent for three minutes to honor those who have died of AIDS [or SIDA in the French version of the acronym.]
Susie and I joined the march and paraded for four or five blocks before stepping back onto the sidewalk to return to Place Maubert, where we watched from the comfort of our café. We walked by St. Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, an enormous, squat, ugly Catholic Church whose forbidding and uninviting back faces Boulevard St. Germain. I was puzzled by the especially heavy presence of riot police around the church until I remembered that the church is the home base of the most extreme right-wing traditionalist branch of French Catholicism, rejecting the Mass in French and all the other hated innovations of John XXIII. The police were obviously concerned about a possible confrontation between the marchers and the parishioners, but the crowd in the parade was having too much fun to be bothered by some grumpy religious fanatics, and the parade flowed past the church without incident.
When Susie and I walked back to our apartment a little after six, the parade was still going strong. I allowed myself the brief fantasy that they were there to say goodbye as we head for America.