Bastille Day devotees called it the largest crowd in 25 years, a throng of 2,000 that for the first time in recent memory was "vraiment democratique."
The late Mme. Herve Alphand's guest list had been "more Hollywood," and recently, Mme. Jacques Kocuisko-Morizet's "more exclusive - she tried to exclude spouses who weren't French," said one Frenchman.
The French Embassy's current residents, Ambassador and Mme. Francois de Laboulaye, had turned to newspaper ads to reach many in metropolitan Washington's French community of 6,000.Invitations were not necessary to attend the 190th anniversary of Bastille Day, the De Laboulayes assured their compatriots; just show French identification at the gate.
So it was Saturday that the French stormed the elegant acreage of their embassy on Kalorama Road, NW, never more a part of la belle France than on Bastille Day. They began lining up to get in an hour before the gates opened.
It was strictly a Gallic afternoon; no one from the canapes-pushing State Department or international diplomatic crowds that usually jam Washington embassies on national days was around.
Instead, the turnout was French, including the black and Asian faces that are lingering evidence of the worldly reach of the onetime French empire, and later the republic.
It was hot and sticky as an Iowa Fourth of July picnic - and ice cream on sticks plus Coca-Cola for "les petits" left some French parents despairing of that similarity.
But 24 cases of champagne (Pommery), 60 litres of sangria, 80 litres of orange juice, 45 cases of soft drinks, 30 cases of Scotch and gin (despite the origin of its name "the French don't go for bourbon," said maitre d'hotel Michel Moinot) helped wash down 5,000 pate sandwiches, 16,000 tarts and countless pieces of smoked salmon over which embassy chefs and aides had labored the previous 24 hours.
("The French don't give a damn about the food," grumbled one Frenchwoman, also sorry to see the hard liquor. "They can make that at home. What they want is the champagne."
Availability of spirits found one mother snatching away her teenage son's glass, dumping its gin and tonic contents onto the grass and scolding him in French;: "How can you be so stupid?"
A chorus of 50 Petits Chanteurs d'Aix-en-Provence led the crowd in "La Marseillaise," a nostalgic moment that moved "une ancienne Folies Bergere" - former Folies dancer Odette Ceniceros of Clinton, Md. - to pull from her handbag a tattered tricolor she made 25 years ago.
"Ah, if it could speak," she said, holding the "blue, blanc et rouge" over her heart.
There were decorations - the National Order of Merit - for seven French civil servants, including consul Pierre Marchal.
But it was that quest for the French "liberte, egalite fraternite, coupled with the fact that the holiday fell on a Saturday this year that seemed to bring out patriots despite Washington's sauna season.
"People are coming even from Baltimore," said Mme. De Laboulaye, somewhat overcome by the magnitude of her success. "People are coming with their children, their grandchildren, their mothers, their grandmothers . . ."
The ardor of French enthusiasm and easy celebration raised the inevitable question: Would 20th-century French men and women storm the Bastille today?
"I understand the question - 'Have we become weak?'" said the ambassador. "It's true that our standard of living has gone so high that people might be hesitant, but I do believe this feeling of solidairty among the French determined to take the Bastille would be every bit as strong today.
"There would be different motivations," said the tall patrician De Laboulaye, "but I've no doubt at all we would be every bit as courageous." CAPTION: Picture, Ambassador De Laboulaye at the celebration, by Ken Feil - The Washington Post