PARIS -- It's Sunday, May 29, my birthday, and at 10 a.m. I'm off to the big flea market at Saint Ouen to peddle a few works of art. I spend about a half-hour with one dealer, and he makes the only pro-constitution remark I will hear all day: ''I voted yes this morning; things will go really badly if the other side wins."
I schlep my folder of art onto the ''Montmartrobus," a small electric-powered vehicle that winds its way up and down the narrow streets of Montmartre, finishing at Place Pigalle. The ambience this morning is that of a village cafe. ''Did you vote this morning?" says one woman to another. ''Such a huge line," comes the reply. ''I got discouraged. I won't vote. Well, maybe I will, but later."
Another person says, ''They sent me the constitution in the mail. One understands nothing." The reply: ''I couldn't figure it out, either." This is a generalized, well-founded complaint. The text is too long and complex.
Birthday lunch on the Avenue Trudaine with my wife, Anne. People are out and don't look too politicized at this moment. We chat with the restaurant owner. She's Polish. ''You'd better hide," jokes Anne, and we all laugh. The ''Polish plumber" has been the bogeyman of the referendum campaign, symbolizing French fears that local jobs are going to be replaced by cheap labor and outsourcing. These, too, are legitimate fears, and the pro-yes campaigners did not have convincing responses to that pressing question.
Toward evening the street is unnaturally quiet. Where is everybody? The polls close at 8 p.m. in most part of the country and at 10 p.m. in Paris.
At 10:15 p.m., it is announced that the ''No" wins by 55 percent. The TV screens are full of politicians -- ironic and inappropriate, since these are the people who have just been massively disavowed by the voters. And yet they chatter on, now defending the ''No" voters; a few days before, they were accusing them of irresponsibility. Quite astonishing to see and hear the flip-flops.
Jacques Chirac appears, with the world's strangest clown smile pasted onto his face. Speaks for a few minutes.
The TV moderator announces that people are congregating at Place de la Bastille. I put on a coat and hat and go out in the rain. At metro Stalingrad a small group of young people gets on, talking politics. Change of trains. Another group of young people joins; the excitement mounts. These are politically active kids from the less-favored parts of the Paris region. ''The left has won, the left has won," they jubilate. I take a snapshot of their group. ''Come along with us," they say to me, and we all get off at Bastille.
It's raining, and most of the people there at 11:30 p.m. are Trotskyites bearing red flags or Communist Party militants. ''What are you?" I ask the girl standing next to me. ''My father was a Communist; me, I'm a socialist, but a real one, like Jaurès." I wonder how many American kids would recognize the name of Jean Jaurès, the socialist leader who was assassinated in 1914. Or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for that matter.
The average age is about 22. Loudspeakers are blaring, there is conga music coming from another quarter, everyone is tu and toi, and there is a lot of flirting. I decide to go home. At the metro station people are talking about the referendum and hugging. On the train, a Brazilian lady strikes up a conversation. We get very Olympian -- foreigners observing the French.
At Concorde, where I change trains, the police have shut off all the entrances and exits. They don't want a demonstration.
The next day a young person I had met on the Boston-Paris flight three weeks ago sends me an e-mail: ''The French are idiots, I'm ashamed of my country."
Strange how perceptions can differ. My May 29 was beautiful. I was impressed by the peacefulness, conviviality, and civility of the process -- how people in normally impersonal Paris would talk freely with each other, sharing their thoughts and feelings. An echo of May 1968.
It also seemed that I was observing a genuinely democratic process, not far from the spirit of ancient Athens. It struck me that the French, not for the first time, were collectively rejecting their rulers. The rulers, understandably, are not amused. Perhaps the elite does know some things better than the common folk. Nonetheless, I still think I saw a magnificent process in motion -- a people asserting their own intrinsic and inalienable sovereignty.
All this made me think about the recent history of the United States. What would have happened if, like the French, Americans had risen up after the falsified election and judicial coup d'état of 2000? Or before the deceitful run-up to the Iraq war? Why did we go along instead of standing up for simple justice?
Maybe the quarrelsome, arrogant, petulant French do get touched now and then by divine inspiration. Maybe the human spirit continues to live, despite many efforts to the contrary.
Joel Cohen is music director of the Boston Camerata.
© 2005 Boston Globe